Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden insisted Saturday that Democrats will not defeat the Republican president if they pick an angry nominee.

Facing thousands of voters in his native Pennsylvania for the second time as a 2020 contender, the former vice president offered a call for bipartisan unity that seemed far more aimed at a general election audience than the fiery Democratic activists most active in the presidential primary process. He acknowledged, however, that some believe Democrats should nominate a candidate who can tap into their party’s anti-Trump anger.

“That’s what they are saying you have to do to win the Democratic nomination. Well, I don’t believe it,” Biden declared. “I believe Democrats want to unify this nation. That’s what the party’s always been about. That’s what it’s always been about. Unity.”

Democratic presidential candidate, former Vice President Joe Biden speaks during a campaign rally at Eakins Oval in Philadelphia, Saturday, May 18, 2019. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)
Democratic presidential candidate, former Vice President Joe Biden speaks during a campaign rally at Eakins Oval in Philadelphia, Saturday, May 18, 2019. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

Biden’s moderate message highlights his chief advantage and chief liability in the early days of the nascent presidential contest, which has so far been defined by fierce resistance to Trump on the left and equally aggressive vitriol on the right. Biden’s centrist approach may help him win over independents, but it threatens to alienate liberals who favor a more aggressive approach in policy and personality to counter Trump’s turbulent presidency.

“I want aggressive change. I’m not hearing that from him yet,” said 45-year-old Jennifer Moyer of Blandon, Pennsylvania, who attended Biden’s rally and said she’s 90% sold on his candidacy. “I don’t want middle of the road.”

The event was the culmination of a three-week campaign rollout that began and ended in Pennsylvania, home to Biden’s campaign headquarters and where he was brought up. The 76-year-old native of working-class Scranton, Pennsylvania, has climbed to the front of the crowded primary field.

Democratic presidential candidate, former Vice President Joe Biden speaks during a campaign rally at Eakins Oval in Philadelphia, Saturday, May 18, 2019. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)
Democratic presidential candidate, former Vice President Joe Biden speaks during a campaign rally at Eakins Oval in Philadelphia, Saturday, May 18, 2019. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

Biden is betting big that voters in the Midwest and beyond will ultimately embrace his optimistic appeal.

That’s far from certain.

Biden’s campaign security team estimated that the Saturday event, which closed down a Philadelphia thoroughfare and attracted a huge police presence, drew an estimated 6,000 people. Compared with events held by some of his top rivals — and certainly Trump’s rallies — the crowd was large, but not overwhelming.

Some in his party’s energized left wing, watching from afar, were skeptical of Biden’s strength atop the field and his message of unity.

“It’s hard to imagine how Joe Biden is not angry,” said Adam Green, co-founder of the liberal group known as the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, which has long supported Elizabeth Warren’s presidential ambitions.

Democratic presidential candidate, former Vice President Joe Biden speaks during a campaign rally at Eakins Oval in Philadelphia, Saturday, May 18, 2019. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)
Democratic presidential candidate, former Vice President Joe Biden speaks during a campaign rally at Eakins Oval in Philadelphia, Saturday, May 18, 2019. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

Ahead in the polls in the early days of the 2020 contest, Biden is unlikely to embrace a more aggressive approach in the near future.

Referencing the health care fight under former President Barack Obama, he noted Saturday that he knows how to win “a bare-knuckle fight,” but later added, “We need to stop fighting and start fixing.”

Before he took the stage, longtime admirer Bradley Skelcher, of Smyrna, Delaware, praised the former vice president’s optimistic message. But he described himself as “damn angry” about the Trump presidency.

“We need calm. You don’t want anybody like me running the country,” Skelcher said. “Somebody needs to calm us down a little.”

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