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With an opening rally in Pittsburgh, Joe Biden signals that Pennsylvania is vital to his campaign

Joe Biden's first public event since launching his presidential campaign underscored how his path to victory runs through Pennsylvania and working class voters.

Former Vice President and Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden takes the stage during a rally at the Teamster Local 249 Hall in Pittsburgh Monday, April 29, 2019.  (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)
Former Vice President and Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden takes the stage during a rally at the Teamster Local 249 Hall in Pittsburgh Monday, April 29, 2019. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)Read moreGene J. Puskar / AP

PITTSBURGH — Stressing that Pennsylvania will be central to his presidential campaign, Joe Biden pledged Monday to rebuild the middle class as he took aim at a key part of President Donald Trump’s coalition in his first rally of the 2020 Democratic primary campaign.

“The country wasn’t built by Wall Street bankers, CEOs, and hedge-fund managers. It was built by you," the former vice president told several hundred people at a Teamsters union hall, arguing that the strong economy Trump touts has not helped everyday workers.

Calling himself a “union man,” Biden said Pittsburgh and his birthplace, Scranton, represent the “hard-working middle-class Americans that are the backbone of this nation.”

And as he stepped back into the political fray, Biden called for a politics that restores “truth over lies.”

The rally, the first public event since Biden announced his presidential bid Thursday, underscored his campaign’s belief that victory is in the hands of the white, working-class voters who swung Pennsylvania and other critical Rust Belt states to Trump in 2016.

“Quite frankly, folks, if I’m going to be able to beat Donald Trump in 2020, it’s going to happen here," he said.

Biden, often referred to as Pennsylvania’s “third senator” when he represented Delaware in the Senate, made a Philadelphia fund-raiser his first formal event after his campaign announcement; turned to Pittsburgh Monday; and plans to stage his second major rally in Philadelphia on May 18, where aides say he will lay out his ideas to heal the country’s divisions.

Biden touched on that theme here as well, referring to the mass shooting at Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life synagogue and reiterating his view that “we are in a battle for America’s soul.”

Democrats are desperate to win Pennsylvania. Without it, their path toward the White House becomes extremely difficult. With it, they might have hope for a Midwestern rebound.

Biden’s early play for Pennsylvania contrasts with most other Democrats, who have focused on early voting states, such as Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina, each likely to have much more influence over deciding the party’s nominee. His approach seems aimed at emphasizing his potential strength in the general election, though he was heading to Iowa Tuesday and with other early voting states to follow.

Trump, who cherishes his Pennsylvania victory, has shown more interest in bashing Biden than he has most of the other Democratic candidates.

“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, with lowest unemployment EVER, a now thriving Steel Industry (that was dead) & great future!........” Trump tweeted Monday morning.

Biden countered in his speech by arguing that the rosy economic metrics and tax cuts Trump championed haven’t translated for ordinary people.

Middle-class policy plans

“The stock market is roaring, but you don’t feel it,” he said to cheers.

“I’m still broke,” one person called from the crowd, estimated at more than 600 people.

Biden argued that it is time to “rethink what constitutes a successful economy," and called for “rebuilding” the middle class, introducing some of his policy platform.

He called for raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour, closing tax loopholes, and rolling back the tax cuts that he said overwhelmingly helped the wealthy and businesses, to reward “work, not wealth.”

He argued for investing in green energy and allowing people to buy into Medicare, stopping well short of many of his Democratic rivals, who have embraced more sweeping plans for the environment and health care.

Biden also used his platform to again attack Trump’s fitness for office, directly challenging the president in a way many Democrats have avoided as they seek to keep the focus on economic issues.

“We need a president who works for all Americans,” Biden said. In a line that drew some of his most enthusiastic applause, he added, “We have to choose hope over fear, unity over division, and, maybe most importantly, truth over lies.”

The message hit home with at least one critical voter. Chuck Howenstein, a Pittsburgh resident and one-time Democrat, voted for Trump in 2016 because he wanted change, but said he would oppose the president this time because of his behavior.

“I saw what happened the last three years, and to me that’s terrible,” said Howenstein, 63. “The division with our country and nationalities and race, it’s never been like this, it’s never been this bad.”

Biden and his supporters argue that his middle-class message and relative moderation make him the party’s best messenger to win back key voters and states, such as Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin, and Ohio, while also holding onto the suburban and urban voters who supported President Barack Obama.

Why some Democrats want a more moderate voice

“We can’t have a nominee who is too far left,” Harold Schaitberger, president of the International Fire Fighters Association, said as he warmed up the crowd.

Schaitberger, whose union endorsed Biden on Monday, brushed off Democrats who might have “high-minded ideals” but “little chance of winning.” Earlier, he said Biden “connects with those workers that didn’t believe the last Democratic nominee heard them, cared about them.”

But labor leaders admitted they have to work to do.

Darrin Kelly, president of the AFL-CIO affiliated Allegheny County Labor Council, said “absolutely” many of the group’s members voted for Trump.

“We have to own that to truly realize what happened,” Kelly said. “This area felt that they were forgotten. I think a lot of people felt that the national message coming out of the Democratic Party was against their kitchen table, what goes to feed their family and what pays their bills.”

Josh Dobbs, a 26-year-old teacher who drove to Pittsburgh from Fairmont, W. Va., said he has liberal views, but believes Democrats need a moderate voice to compete in this region and win over Republicans who have soured on Trump.

“He’s mainstream,” Dobbs said of Biden. “If we nominate someone who’s a little more to the left, that’s fine by me, but as far as my state, that’s not OK.”

But a vocal faction of Democratic voters have called for a more aggressive vision brought forward by someone younger and fresher than Biden.

How Republicans plan to hold Pa.

Democrats have rebounded in Pennsylvania elections since Trump’s win, but Republicans argue that Trump has a unique appeal to working-class voters, particularly in rural areas, that won’t easily be overcome.

They also pointed to Pennsylvania’s 3.9 percent unemployment rate in March, the lowest on record, as a sign that Trump has delivered.

“For eight years, Joe Biden was part of a team that turned their back on everything that has this economy booming,” Pennsylvania Republican Party Chairman Val DiGiorgio said in a conference call before the rally.

He predicted that Biden will “have to move so far to the left in order to win the primary. … I don’t know how he’ll come back to the center to run in the general election.”