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. The president won in 2016 because he won states such as Pennsylvania and Michigan, partly by appealing to Democrats who felt they had been left behind by both globalisation and their 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 contender who can help win over independent Republicans.
Speaking before Mr Biden took the stage, 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.”
In introducing Mr Biden, Harold Schaitberger, president of the International Association of Firefighters which endorsed the former vice-president, said he had supported the unions and “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 race remains according to polling, 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.”