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As 2020 decision nears, Pa. insiders line up for Joe Biden

Veteran Pennsylvania fund-raisers and insiders view the former vice president with Scranton roots as the safest choice against President Donald Trump, and believe he can flip the Keystone State back to Democrats.

Former Vice President Joe Biden speaks at the Chuck Hagel Forum in Global Leadership, on the campus of the University of Nebraska-Omaha Feb. 28, 2019. Many Pennsylvania Democrats are eager to see him run, and believe his more moderate tone could help win the state back after it supported President Donald Trump in 2016.
Former Vice President Joe Biden speaks at the Chuck Hagel Forum in Global Leadership, on the campus of the University of Nebraska-Omaha Feb. 28, 2019. Many Pennsylvania Democrats are eager to see him run, and believe his more moderate tone could help win the state back after it supported President Donald Trump in 2016.Read moreNati Harnik / AP

WASHINGTON — As the Democratic presidential primary unfolds, a network of Pennsylvania donors and political officials is waiting on one man: Joe Biden.

A cadre of old-guard fund-raisers and insiders view the former vice president as a familiar and safe choice against President Donald Trump, especially given his deep ties to Pennsylvania, likely to be a crucial swing state in 2020. Many have vowed to support Biden if he announces a run in the coming days, as party insiders increasingly expect.

The anticipation has intensified as Biden prepares to speak Tuesday to the International Association of Firefighters convention in Washington. It’s the kind of event that Biden supporters say will showcase the blue-collar appeal they believe makes him Democrats’ best bet to unify the party and win back states such as Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin, where many white, working-class voters turned to Trump in 2016, helping tip the election.

“If I were to guess, I’d guess he’s going to run,” said Sen. Bob Casey (D., Pa.), who on Wednesday said he had spoken to Biden, a fellow Scranton native, within the previous 10 days. (Casey has not said whom he plans to support.)

Former U.S. Rep. Bob Brady, chairman of the Philadelphia Democratic Party, said that Biden “keeps telling me to keep my powder dry,” and that he is ready to back his longtime friend.

And Sen. Chris Coons (D., Del.), was “optimistic” Biden will join the contest. Echoing others, Coons hailed Biden’s experience in international affairs and potential appeal to a wide swath of voters.

“His ability to repair the damage that’s been done to our place in the world is unmatched,” Coons said, later adding that on many issues “he gets the experience of the middle class in the United States better than any candidate in the field.”

>> READ MORE: Trump visits the county that helped swing Pa. to the right. Can Democrats win it back?

Biden’s route to the Democratic nomination got clearer last week when two potential ideological and stylistic rivals opted out of the contest. Former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who would have run as a centrist, and Sen. Sherrod Brown (D., Ohio), who has a Midwestern, working-class appeal, both announced they wouldn’t run.

Their decisions could leave Biden as one of the few Democrats running on a moderate message, along with Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota and former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper.

Though he represented Delaware, Pennsylvania Democrats have long treated the Scranton-born Biden as one of their own. Since leaving the White House he has established the Biden Center for Diplomacy & Global Engagement at the University of Pennsylvania and is said to be eyeing Philadelphia or Wilmington as a base of operations in a presidential run.

Keystone State Democrats still regularly seek his support, viewing Biden as an ally who can connect with ordinary voters in areas where the party has been in retreat. Last year Biden rallied with Casey during the senator’s reelection bid, campaigned with Rep. Conor Lamb as he ran in a Trump-friendly district in Western Pennsylvania, and marched in the Pittsburgh Labor Day parade. He has decades-long ties to many Pennsylvania political players.

“In the conventional donor marketplace, Joe has 80 to 90 percent of the Philadelphia givers and raisers waiting for him to run,” said former Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell, though he noted significant fund-raising now also occurs through small donations online.

Rendell said he is “inclined” to support Biden if he runs, and hailed him as the kind of candidate who can win both fervent Democrats and moderate voters.

“Joe Biden is a 10 on the experience rating,” Rendell said. “Everyone else is a five or lower.”

Some major Pennsylvania donors, however, are still waiting to see how the field takes shape, and few Democratic candidates have made sustained attempts to woo the state’s political elite so far.

Longtime Biden allies and fund-raisers Tom Leonard and Stephen Cozen, partners at Center City law firms, said they will back him if he runs. Each hailed Biden as the best option against Trump, especially as other Democratic contenders have supported sweeping liberal proposals that they fear could play poorly in swing states.

“If Trump can run against socialism, he has a decent shot to be reelected,” Leonard said.

Another Philadelphia fund-raiser, lawyer Kenneth Jarin, said he was “very inclined” to support Biden, though he also likes several current or former Democratic governors in the race or mulling campaigns.

“The ultimate priority here is to win, and I think at least at the moment he appears to be the strongest candidate, if he runs, in terms of ability to beat Trump,” Jarin said. “But I think we’re a long way from really knowing the answer. I think this has to play out before anyone can really know.”

Indeed, while Biden has led in early polling, there are many months to go and he would confront a crowded, diverse Democratic field. Biden has flopped in two previous presidential campaigns, and at 76 faces questions about his appeal and stamina for the job. Many of the insiders lining up for Biden are older white men with pro-business views, while much of the Democratic debate is being driven by younger and minority voters eager for new voices and bold ideas.

Biden’s longevity has built him substantial Democratic support, including with African Americans, but some of his record looks out of step with the party of today. In recent months he has tried to ease concerns about how he led the Senate Judiciary Committee when it questioned Anita Hill about her sexual-harassment accusations against Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, and over his support of a 1994 crime bill now blamed for disproportionately punishing minorities. Some liberals have bristled at his chummy approach to Republicans, including Vice President Mike Pence.

On Thursday, the Washington Post resurfaced comments from 1975 in which Biden spoke out against school busing to promote integration.

“He has a lot more history and connection to the state, but I think like anything he’s going to have to compete to win,” said Rep. Dwight Evans (D., Pa.). “This is not going to be decided by insiders. It’s going to be decided by people.”

Everyday Pennsylvanians, however, may have little direct say, since the state holds its Democratic primary in April 2020, late in the nominating contest.

But backing from Pennsylvania’s donor world could bolster Biden as he competes elsewhere and underscore his supporters’ argument that he has the best odds in the places that matter most in the general election.