PHILADELPHIA — Joseph R. Biden Jr., affectionately known to many Democrats in this city as Pennsylvania’s “third senator,” returned to the state of his birth on Saturday to deliver a forceful call for national unity, looking past the Democratic presidential primary to directly appeal to the voters who helped power President Trump’s victory in this state and across the country in 2016.
Mr. Biden, the former vice president and Delaware senator now pursuing his third bid for the presidency, trained his eye squarely on the general election as he cast the contest against Mr. Trump as a struggle to maintain American democracy.
And he struck a defiant tone toward those in his own party who had expressed discomfort with Mr. Biden’s emphasis on bipartisanship and his legacy of Washington deal-making, as he argued that the stakes of the coming presidential election should transcend partisan passions of the moment.
“They say Democrats are so angry, the angrier a candidate can be, the better chance he or she has to win the Democratic nomination,” Mr. Biden said. “Well I don’t believe it, I really don’t.”
“If the American people want a president to add to our division, lead with a clenched fist, closed hand, a hard heart, to demonize the opponents and spew hatred — they don’t need me,” he went on. “They’ve got President Donald Trump. Folks, I am running to offer our country — Democrats, Republicans and independents — a different path. Not back to a path that never was but to a future that fulfills our true potential as a country.”
But before Republicans and independents in many states have the opportunity to consider Mr. Biden’s candidacy, he will first have to convince Democrats throughout a long campaign that as a 76-year-old Caucasian man with a sometimes-controversial record on matters ranging from criminal justice to abortion rights to foreign policy, he is still best suited to represent a party that has moved left in recent years, animated by a young and diverse progressive flank.
Many of those voters have little patience for Mr. Biden’s overtures toward Republicans, and are clamoring for sweeping progressive change offered up by a host of Mr. Biden’s competitors.
Mr. Biden’s appearance at Eakins Oval, a green plaza at the base of the Philadelphia Art Museum where the city’s skyline serves as a backdrop, unfolded just across town from the site of former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s 2016 election eve rally with President Barack Obama — what was an intended passing of the Democratic torch that crumbled the next night.
The Democratic loss of Pennsylvania in 2016, a crucial piece of Mr. Trump’s victory, was top of mind for Mr. Biden’s supporters here. Several of his most prominent supporters pointed to a Quinnipiac University poll from this past week that showed Mr. Biden with a lead of 11 percentage points over Mr. Trump in a head-to-head matchup in this state, besting rivals such as Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont at this early juncture.
“Trump can’t win this election, he can only have the Democrats lose it,” said former Gov. Ed Rendell of Pennsylvania, warning that the president will paint the Democratic Party as one that wants to “turn the country into a socialist country,” aiming to scare “the living bejabbers out of people.”
“The best defense, the person most difficult to accomplish those goals against, is Biden,” he said.