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Former Vice President Joe Biden Is Widely Expected To Join 2020 Race


The field of Democratic contenders for 2020 is big and probably going to get bigger. Former Vice President Joe Biden is expected to jump into the race in a few weeks. Today, he appeared before the firefighters union, a group that has supported him for years. NPR's Mara Liasson has more.


UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: Run. Run, Joe, run. Run, Joe, run. Run, Joe, run.

JOE BIDEN: Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.

MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: It sure looked like a campaign announcement or at least a dress rehearsal for one. There were the run, Joe, run chants and the yellow and black run, Joe, run signs.


BIDEN: I appreciate the energy you showed when I got up here. Save it a little longer. I may need it in a few weeks.

LIASSON: The audience, mostly white, working-class men, was a proxy for the kind of voters Democrats need to win back next year in states like Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania. Biden, who was born in Scranton, told the firefighters they reminded him of his own neighborhood.


BIDEN: 'Cause when I look around this room, I see the people who built this nation. Country wasn't built by Wall Street bankers and CEOs and hedge fund managers. They're not necessarily bad. They didn't build this country. It was built by the great American middle class, and unions built the middle class.


LIASSON: Biden seemed to be fighting off a cold, and his remarks were a little rambling, but they had all the building blocks of a stump speech. He made the case against Trump, decrying the mean pettiness that's taken over our politics and the notion that American identity is defined by race or religion.


BIDEN: We're defined by those enduring principles that are in the Constitution even though we don't necessarily all know them. That's what defines us. Within America, everybody gets a shot. That's what the next president of the United States needs to understand, and that's what I don't think this current president understands at all.

LIASSON: If he runs, Biden would join a diverse Democratic field with no obvious front-runner. He and Bernie Sanders top the early polls, but at this point, that's just a measurement of name ID. It's easy to say Biden and Sanders represent a left-versus-center split in the party, but ideology may not be the determining factor in the Democratic race. Strategist Steve Elmendorf says before Democrats ask whether a candidate is for the Green New Deal or "Medicare for All," they ask, can they win?

STEVE ELMENDORF: We want to find the best candidate who can beat Donald Trump. And I think Vice President Biden - it does run the range from people who think that the sort of calm, steady experience, ability to talk to working people in the Midwest, his Pennsylvania background would be a good counterpoint to Trump. You also get people who are looking for new and different, and he is not new and different.

LIASSON: Biden's biggest strength is his potential appeal to voters in the Rust Belt states Democrats need to win back. Capri Cafaro is the former minority leader of the Ohio state senate. She says Biden, more than the other candidates, could campaign in the town where she grew up.

CAPRI CAFARO: In my hometown, the last Chevy Cruze came off the line of General Motors Lordstown facility that's been there for 53 years. And if Joe Biden goes into some of these communities - whether it's Lordstown, Ohio, or where Carrier air conditioners were in Indiana, where there were a lot of promises made and jobs were still lost and going to Mexico - I think that that shows that he gets it and that he's willing to take it directly to Trump where Trump has failed.

LIASSON: But Cafaro says Democrats also worry about Biden's potential weaknesses.

CAFARO: Folks that have seen Joe Biden on the campaign trail in the 2018 midterm elections that - you know, the energy isn't necessarily there. The enthusiasm isn't necessarily there. And I think that there's a concern that Joe Biden, while he may be a very good candidate on paper - that in practice, he may not be a very strong candidate.

LIASSON: Other Democrats worry that another Biden strength - his earthy, sometimes goofy authenticity - could also be a drawback. Jennifer Palmieri was the director of communications in the Obama White House and for the 2016 Clinton campaign.

JENNIFER PALMIERI: When Joe Biden is not a candidate, everyone seems to love the gaffes that he makes endearing. And when he is a candidate, people seem to find them problematic.

LIASSON: More than the other candidates, Biden will be under tremendous scrutiny as soon as he gets in the race. Steve Elmendorf says there are a few things he'll be watching for.

ELMENDORF: Energy - I think he's got to show that he's as energetic as any of the other people out there running. I think he's got to show that he's got the capacity to raise a lot of money. And I think he's got to show that he has a theory of how to deal with Trump on a day-to-day basis.

LIASSON: There's a long way till the first primary votes are cast. But if and when Biden enters the race, those questions should be answered fairly quickly. Mara Liasson, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Mara Liasson is a national political correspondent for NPR. Her reports can be heard regularly on NPR's award-winning newsmagazine programs Morning Edition and All Things Considered. Liasson provides extensive coverage of politics and policy from Washington, DC — focusing on the White House and Congress — and also reports on political trends beyond the Beltway.