GETTYSBURG — Joe Biden on Tuesday made an impassioned plea for national unity and bipartisan cooperation, casting the 2020 election as a “battle for the soul of the nation” — with the Civil War’s most famous battlefield as his backdrop.

“There’s no more fitting place than here today in Gettysburg to talk about the cost of division, about how much it has cost America in the past, about how much it is costing us now, and why I believe in this moment we must come together,” Biden said to a small, socially distanced crowd. “Today, once again, we are a house divided. But that, my friends, can no longer be. We are facing too many crises. We have too much work to do. We have too bright a future.”

With a statesmanlike tone layered over his Scranton-bred everyman persona, Biden sought to place himself above the fray, spending more time discussing American values than leveling attacks on President Donald Trump. Earlier in the day, Biden described the speech as one that he “worked and worked and worked on.”

With only a handful of attendees aside from members of the news media, security personnel, and campaign staff, Biden’s speech was delivered primarily for a television audience and with the help of a teleprompter. Among the few guests invited were local military veterans and local elected officials, including Republican Matt Fogal, the Franklin County district attorney who was censured by his party after supporting the Black Lives Matter movement.

He spoke from a vista overlooking the Civil War’s bloodiest battlefield, where the Union Army won a pivotal victory over Confederate soldiers and President Abraham Lincoln delivered his historic Gettysburg Address affirming that all people are created equal.

Biden’s bid to be seen as a national unifier was on display in his attempt to toe a narrow line while discussing racial injustice. The former vice president criticized Trump’s repeated refusals to denounce racist hate groups — which he called “the forces of darkness, the forces of division, the forces of yesterday.” But he rejected the most aggressive reform proposals pushed by the protest movement that swept the country after the Minneapolis police killing of George Floyd.

“I believe in law and order. I’ve never supported defunding the police," Biden said. “But I also believe injustice is real. It’s a product of a history that goes back 400 years, the moment when Black men, women, and children were brought here in chains. I do not believe we have to choose between law and order and racial justice."

Biden also referenced new 76ers coach Doc Rivers' remarks on racial justice in August, when Rivers noted that Black Americans continue to love America despite a history of racism that includes lynchings, police brutality, and housing discrimination.

“It’s amazing to me why we keep loving this country, and this country has not loved us back. And it’s really so sad,” Rivers said then.

“I think about that," Biden said Tuesday. “I think about what it takes for a Black person to love America. That is a deep love for this country that for far too long we have never fully recognized.”

Biden, who has not slowed his pace of campaigning since Trump announced he tested positive for the coronavirus on Friday, has made trips to Michigan and Florida over the last few days.

He has increasingly traveled to areas where Trump has strong support, as a growing lead in national polls, consistent advantages in swing-state surveys, and increasingly competitive contests even in more conservative states like Texas and Georgia raise the prospect of a large Electoral College win. He visited an area of Miami with a large Cuban population on Monday, to court a constituency that often votes Republican. And last week he went to Johnstown and other parts of Western Pennsylvania, where Trump has deep support among white working-class voters.

Gettysburg, in Adams County, voted for Trump by a 2-1 ratio in 2016.

Biden has maintained an advantage over Trump in Pennsylvania polls. A Monmouth University survey released Tuesday showed Biden leading by between 8 and 11 percentage points in Pennsylvania, depending on voter turnout. Half of Monmouth’s poll was conducted before the president’s diagnosis became public. The survey results were almost the same before and after.

Douglas Page, 32, of Gettysburg. waves a large flag as supporters of both President Donald Trump and Democratic nominee Joe Biden gather on opposite sides of the street in downtown Gettysburg on Tuesday.
TOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer
Douglas Page, 32, of Gettysburg. waves a large flag as supporters of both President Donald Trump and Democratic nominee Joe Biden gather on opposite sides of the street in downtown Gettysburg on Tuesday.

Earlier Tuesday, Biden attended a virtual fund-raiser from Wilmington with Rep. Jim Clyburn (D., S.C.), who helped resuscitate his campaign during the South Carolina primary.

The Gettysburg speech came a day after Trump was released from Walter Reed National Military Medical Center and encouraged Americans not to be afraid of the coronavirus.

“Don’t let it dominate you. Don’t be afraid of it,” Trump said Monday in a video from the White House. Trump, who is still contagious, tweeted Tuesday that he is “looking forward” to his second debate with Biden next week.

As he prepared to fly out of the airport in Hagerstown, Biden said he was “looking forward to being able to debate [Trump], but I just hope all the protocols are followed.” Asked if he would feel safe, Biden said: “If he still has COVID, we shouldn’t have a debate.”

Biden slammed Trump’s handling of the pandemic at a town hall in Miami on Monday night, urging him to institute a national mask mandate.

“Anybody who contracts the virus by essentially saying masks don’t matter, social distancing doesn’t matter, I think is responsible for what happens to them,” Biden said when asked if Trump is partly responsible for his health situation.

On Tuesday in Gettysburg, Biden lamented that America’s response to the pandemic had become a political issue.

“Let’s set the partisanship aside. Let’s end the politics. Let’s follow the science,” he said. “Wearing a mask isn’t a political statement. It’s a scientific recommendation. Social distancing isn’t a political statement. It’s a scientific recommendation.”