Former Vice President Joe Biden grasped the microphone tightly as he delivered his closing pitch for Democrats, his normally booming voice gone after a week of campaigning and replaced with something much lower and hoarse.
Biden's mission over the past week was straightforward: help Democrats make their closing argument heading into Tuesday's elections. But his six day, eight-state campaign swing, which took him to college campuses, union halls, suburb fairgrounds and even the early nominating state of Iowa, also carried the trappings of an opening act with chants of "Run Joe Run!" filling many of his 12 rallies over the last week.
"The only thing strong enough to tear apart America is America itself, and we've seen it start, and we have to stop it and that's what Tuesday's about," Biden said Sunday in Yatesville just a few miles from his birthplace of Scranton, Pennsylvania, a city upon which he's centered much of his blue collar, middle-class message. "We have to make clear that Democrats, Democrats choose hope over fear. Democrats choose unity over division, and most importantly, we choose truth over lies."
"It's time to get up. Remember who in the hell we are. This is America," added Biden, who was struck with laryngitis over his last few days of campaigning.
Biden has made no secret he's considering a run for president in 2020, but he's said that decision will come after the midterms, training his focus instead on helping Democrats win back the House and Senate.
While he campaigned for Sen. Claire McCaskill at a union office in Bridgeton, Missouri, last week, someone in the crowd shouted "Biden 2020!" As the applause began, Biden smiled and held up his hand, saying "No ... This isn't about me."
But come Wednesday, it will be about him and that decision he has to make.
Over the past week, I spoke with nearly four dozen Democratic and independent voters at Biden rallies in seven states about his 2020 prospects. The verdict about whether he should run for president was mixed.
"I wanted to come see Biden because I think he's what we need. He's a fighter for our country and he fights for our people," Michael Simonik, a route sales driver from Jessup, Pa., said. "I hope he runs. I think he would be a great candidate, and I think he would beat Donald Trump."
Dan Sekera, a graphic designer from Luzerne, Pennsylvania, said it's time for a "new face."
"We just had a dinner with my grandparents today, and they were talking how they would really like Biden to run, but I think there will be a big disconnect between the millennials and generations you need," Sekera said. "All my friends say, 'If you're a centrist, you're basically as bad as the Republicans.' And Biden kind of floats in that area."
"No," Stan Shanker, a retired metals trader who now volunteers helping refugees in the St. Louis area, said about a Biden 2020 run. "I love him. ... We're big fans of him for sure. I just think that the country needs, new blood, new ways of doing things. For sure we can learn from people like Vice President Biden, but I just think that we need fresh" people.
"I thought Joe was great, genuine. I felt that he was very humble to be here and all around he puts off a good vibe," Jenna Spigutz, a nanny from Willoughby, Ohio, said. "I just think he was a great vice president, so why wouldn't he make a great president?
"Hopefully Obama can be vice," Spigutz added. "Biden-Obama 2020."
Biden's closing argument
Over the past few months, Biden has endorsed more than 130 candidates and traveled to roughly two dozen states for rallies, fundraisers and other stops to support 65 candidates. As of last week, Biden's PAC, American Possibilities, had disbursed nearly $600,000 directly to candidates' campaigns, an aide to Biden said.
Along the way, Biden has promoted Democrats as the party to protect health care, and entitlement programs, like Social Security and Medicare, and to fight for middle class workers. But he's also framed this election as a "battle for the soul of America," preaching the need for political leaders to promote decency and moral integrity.
"We have to reset the moral compass of this nation, and we do that on Tuesday," Biden said in Parma Heights, Ohio, on Saturday.
He's stressed the need for candidates of "character" and authenticity, a message that often times sounds like a pitch he's making about himself as much as the candidates for whom he's campaigning.
"We need people who are authentic, who don't bully or belittle other people, who treat people with dignity and respect. People who simply tell the truth," Biden said in Bridgeton.
That embrace of the truth was at the center of many of Biden's applause lines. After President Trump recently said he tries to tell the truth, when he can, Biden told an Ohio crowd, "They're trying to convince us that honesty is relative depending on where you stand."
"Truth is truth. Truth is truth. Honesty is honesty," he added.
Biden has also called on political leaders to dial back their rhetoric, particularly in the wake of the deadly massacre at a Pittsburgh synagogue last month, saying "words matter."
"Three times this past week the forces of hate and terror have descended on the American political scene, going after people for their political belief, the color of their skin or their religion. Folks we need to recognize that words matter," Biden said in Cedar Rapids Iowa.
"America is so much better than this. We are so much better than this. I know that sometimes it feels like these days like anger and hatred and viciousness are overwhelming us," he said. "It's our leaders that need to set the tone and dial down the temperature, restore some dignity to our national dialogue but it's also the American people and each one of us has the power to change the tone of our discourse in our lives."
While Biden has toned down some of his own attacks on President Trump, there were times he strayed from his own advice. In Fargo, North Dakota Thursday, Biden seized on comments made by Sen. Heidi Heitkamp's Republican opponent, Rep. Kevin Cramer, who earlier this year suggested farmers worried about a trade war need to acquire a higher pain threshold.
"Your guy calls farmers' concerns hysteria and says they don't have a very high threshold for pain," Biden said. "Well I get that president of the trade unions up here and he'll show him a threshold of pain."
Where Biden went
Biden kicked off his midterm campaign blitz literally running through the streets of Pittsburgh during a Labor Day parade. Since then, he's held 18 rallies across the country.
Over the past month, Biden rallied voters in the six states PresidentDonald Trump flipped from blue to red in 2016 -- Florida, Ohio, Michigan, Iowa, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, many of those states home to competitive governors' races where Democrats see pick-up opportunities.
The former vice president also campaigned for up-and-coming Democratic candidates in close House races, including Antonio Delgado in New York's 19th Congressional District; Abby Finkenauer in Iowa's 1st Congressional District, Brendan Kelly in Illinois' 12th Congressional District; Amy McGrath in Kentucky's 6th Congressional District; Elissa Slotkin in Michigan's 8th Congressional District; and Lauren Underwood in Illinois's 14th Congressional District.
Ever a creature of the Senate, Biden lent his hand to endangered Democratic senators, including Heitkamp, McCaskill and Sens. Joe Donnelly of Indiana and Bill Nelson of Florida, and campaigned for Jacky Rosen, the Democratic candidate for Senate in Nevada. Biden's trips to Missouri and North Dakota in the final days of the election made him the most high-profile Democrat to step foot in those state Trump won by double digits.
"There are probably a lot of people who just don't think that this race is winnable," said Steve Rodvold, a retired human resources officer from Fargo. "When you get somebody like that coming out, hopefully you can motivate some of those people who may not have voted just to get out and understand why it's so important."
Biden's final campaign stop landed him in Pennsylvania's Luzerne County, a key area that helped Trump flip the state red. Biden and President Obama won Luzerne County by 5 points in 2012 but Trump carried it by 20 in 2016.
The breakneck pace at which Biden has recently campaigned will likely subside in the coming weeks. But he already has a few speeches and public commitments tied to his initiatives on his calendar through the end of the year.
On Sunday in Philadelphia, he'll present the National Constitution Center's annual Liberty Medal to President George W. Bush and former First Lady Laura Bush. Later this month, Biden has a string of speeches in California and Arizona as well as a few stops for the paperback release of his memoir "Promise Me, Dad," which will take him to Montana, Texas and Vermont in December. He plans on having some downtime with his family over Thanksgiving in Nantucket, an annual Biden family tradition.
The Age Factor
As they await a decision about 2020, voters repeated one hesitancy about a Biden candidacy -- his age.
"He's a good fella. I wish he was 10 years younger. I think then he would have a better chance, you know, of running for president," John Buchholz, a farmer from Casselton, North Dakota, said. "I think he's probably a little bit beyond his prime. But he's a good guy."
"I like Joe Biden. In fact, I wish he would run. I don't like the way the turn of our politics right now. It just seems like it's dirty, and I'm tired of it," said Debbie Feke, who works in customer service from Boardman, Ohio. "He knows his stuff. He has experience. He's very caring. ... He would be the best qualified candidate, but he's old."
"I'd like to see him run. I'd like to see how he does hold up on the campaign trail, just you know, the age thing," said David Gerleman, a retired engineer from Swisher, Iowa. "Let's face it. The older you get the more likely something like a heart attack or a stroke or something like that could occur and depending on who the vice president ... that could be a crisis. It's just reality."
Biden has acknowledged his age would be a "totally legitimate" issue for voters to consider should he run for president. But some voters see Biden's age as an advantage.
"I know age is going to come up," said Vicki Kanka, a 67-year-old health care consultant from South Euclid, Ohio, who supports a Biden run. "I'm older too and there's no reason why you can't be as productive, and I think that with age comes wisdom and that's what we need right now is some wisdom."
Most voters said it's too early to predict who they'd side with in a Democratic primary.
"He's just so inspirational. We have an expression in Yiddish: He's a mensch. Somebody who's real and honest and has good character. We just love him so much," said Becky Shimony, a drug prevention educator from the St. Louis area. "I love Kamala Harris, I love Cory Booker. Those are two of my favorites, but he's up there."
"I would want to see who else is running," said Joanne Streit, who worked in hospital patient advocacy in Madison, Wisconsin.
Ahead of Biden's rally at the University of Wisconsin, Streit's husband, Ken, a retired law professor, said he liked Biden but wasn't ready to commit to a candidate, saying he'd wait until a year out to start picking favorites. In the middle of Biden's speech, he turned around and said, "I changed my mind." Afterward, he explained.
"I wasn't sure when I came here that he was gonna run. This was basically announcing that he's going to run. I've never heard a speech clearer without, minus the words 'I declare my candidacy.' This was a declaration that he's going to run," Streit said. "I can't imagine a more positive candidate coming forward in the next two years. I think he really has a lot of capacity to unify the country and to lead us into positive directions. So that's why I would vote for him.
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