Joe Biden took his newly cash flush presidential campaign to Pittsburgh on Monday, making the case in his first speech as a candidate that he would fight for American workers and not corporate bosses.
“This country wasn’t built by Wall Street bankers, CEOs, or hedge fund managers. It was built by you,” Mr Biden said, just days after entering the presidential race as the 20th Democrat running for the White House.
“I make no apologies. I am a union man,” he told a largely working-class audience of several hundred people that included dozens of members of the International Association of Fire Fighters union.
The former vice-president chose the Pennsylvania city to emphasise his pitch that Democrats must win back states with large working-class populations to beat Donald Trump in 2020. In 2016, Mr Trump won because he took states such as Pennsylvania and Michigan, partly by appealing to Democrats who felt they had been left behind by both globalisation and their own party.
“If I am going to be able to beat Donald Trump in 2020 it is going to happen here,” Mr Biden told the packed room, in a speech that was punctuated with loud chants of “We want Joe, we want Joe”.
Before Mr Biden arrived in Pittsburgh — the first stop of a tour that will also take him to the early voting states of Iowa and South Carolina — Mr Trump attacked the former vice-president.
“Sleepy Joe Biden is having his first rally in the Great State of Pennsylvania. He obviously doesn’t know that Pennsylvania is having one of the best economic years in its history,” Mr Trump tweeted.
While some Democratic contenders are focusing their campaigns on making the case for progressive policies, Mr Biden has homed on on the need to beat Mr Trump to stop him from fuelling polarisation in the US.
“Our political system is broken. We’re tearing America apart rather than building it up,” Mr Biden said. “Donald Trump is the only president who has decided not to represent the whole country. We need a president who will represent all Americans.”
In calling for a doubling of the federal minimum wage to $15, Mr Biden said that “we need to reward work in this country — not just wealth”.
Mr Biden has entered the race as the frontrunner based on early polling and a record fundraising haul in the first 24 hours of his campaign. But Democrats are divided over whether to choose a progressive candidate who can energise its base or a more moderate who can win over independent Republicans.
A new CNN poll released the morning after the Pittsburgh speech showed that Mr Biden appeared to have received a big post-launch bump. The survey — which asked people who they preferred from a list of candidates they were read — showed him leading the Democratic field with 39 per cent, with Bernie Sanders, the 77-year old socialist trailing in second place on 15 per cent.
The last poll released before Mr Biden launched his campaign had shown him leading Mr Sanders by 27-20 points.
The polls are also showing that the vast majority of Democrats have not made up their mind about who they will vote for, underscoring the size and diversity of the Democratic field and the fact that the first votes in the primary contest will not come until the Iowa caucuses next February.
Speaking before Mr Biden took the stage on Monday, Pat Mullin, a 55-year-old truck driver, said he worried that the party might veer too much to the left and prevent it from ousting Mr Trump.
“[Biden] is the only one who got a chance,” he said. “He is old-school. A lot of them are halfway to being socialists right now. He is not. He has always worked hard for unions, he has had eight good years, he would give us eight good years.”
Harold Schaitberger, president of the International Association of Firefighters which has endorsed Mr Biden, introduced the former vice-president in Pittsburgh by saying he “knows that the unions built the middle class”. But he had a warning for Democrats: “We have to have a nominee who is not too far left.”
Underscoring the divide in the party, however, his warning was not welcomed by all. Christine Bellassis, an English teacher, moaned in the audience that the anti-socialist “rhetoric is starting”.
“I would like to see a real progressive,” she said. “I tell people: do you like your social security, Medicare? That’s socialism. A lot of people equate socialism and communism. It doesn’t have to be such a dirty word.”
Ms Bellassis said she was “not sure” about Mr Biden. Highlighting how open the Democratic primary remains according to polling — which shows that a large majority of people remain undecided — she said she liked Senators Elizabeth Warren, Kamala Harris, Bernie Sanders and “another man whose name is escaping me” — who she later identified as entrepreneur Andrew Yang.
She said she had not forgotten how Mr Biden handled the 1991 Senate hearing with Anita Hill, a woman who had accused then Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas, of sexual harassment.
While Mr Biden has been forced to confront claims from some women that he has made them uncomfortable with his tactile approach, some supporters at his speech said he should not be punished for gestures that were meant to show empathy.
Mr Mullin also downplayed the controversies about Mr Biden’s behaviour with women and suggested the 76-year-old might have been the victim of “fake news” like Mr Trump and Supreme Court judge Brett Kavanaugh.
“There is so much fake news now,” Mr Mullin said. “I don’t think he means anything by it. They did it to Trump, they did to Kavanaugh. This is how the world is right now — you’re guilty before you’ve proven you’re innocent.”
Mr Biden has also faced questions about his age and whether he can stay disciplined and avoid gaffes. Tammy Bowser, a government employee whose husband is a union member, said she was not concerned about Mr Biden being much older than most of the other candidates — aside from Mr Sanders — and liked his bipartisan nature.
“He’s a smart guy. He’s a caring guy. And I know he can do the job,” Ms Bowser said. “Biden talks about unity, let’s work together. You know, let’s not divide the country and Democrats and Republicans, let’s work together. And that’s why I like Biden.”