Joe Biden has appeared to confirm he will mount another campaign for the White House, telling guests at a Delaware Democratic party dinner he has “the most progressive record of anybody running”. Biden indicated the remark was a slip of the tongue but many in the crowd stood to cheer regardless.
There are now 16 candidates for the Democratic nomination to run against Donald Trump, the former Texas congressman Beto O’Rourke having entered the race this week. The New York senator Kirsten Gillibrand formally declared her run on Sunday morning.
Biden, 76 and a former Delaware senator and US vice-president, has not announced either an exploratory committee or a formal candidacy, but he has been widely reported to be on the brink, as much as “95%” decided, of doing so.
Early polls have placed him top, his nearest challenger the Vermont independent senator Bernie Sanders, another familiar face to voters after his 2016 campaign.
Should Biden enter, he would be in the centre of a field strongly influenced by progressive ideals flourishing among the Democratic base in response to Sanders’ surge last time and the hard-right policies of the Trump White House.
At the dinner in Dover on Saturday night, Biden said: “I know I get criticised. I’m told I get criticised by the new left. I have the most progressive record of anybody running for the – anybody who would run.”
As a cheering crowd nearly drowned him out, he crossed himself and added that he “didn’t mean it”.
Nonetheless, much of Biden’s speech sounded like a test of campaign themes and soundbites, particularly criticism of Trump.
“The only thing strong enough to tear America apart,” he said, “is America itself and we’ve seen its start.”
He also accused Trump of backing away from the country’s role as a leader on the world stage and abandoning its allies, and said it was no coincidence “fake news” – one of Trump’s favourite terms – “has become the phrase of choice for every despot terrorising his people”.
“We’re literally in a battle for the soul of America,” Biden said.
Before the former vice-president spoke, Delaware governor John Carney said he “doesn’t just look like he’s back, he looks like he’s ready for a fight”.
Carney added: “In my humble opinion, we have never needed Joe Biden more than we need him right now.”
Biden served in the Senate for 36 years. He ran for president in 1987 but dropped out after a scandal over speeches apparently partly plagiarised from figures including the British Labour leader Neil Kinnock. He ran for the 2008 nomination too, dropping out of a race dominated by Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton after the Iowa caucuses.
He then spent eight years in the White House as a popular vice-president to Obama, earning a reputation for gaffes that could be turned to political advantage, such as his expression of support for same-sex marriage before the president had taken a position, which prompted Obama to move on the issue. He also attracted criticism, for example regarding his physical behaviour towards some women.
In 2015 his son Beau Biden, a former Delaware attorney general, died of brain cancer at the age of 46.
On Sunday a declared Democratic candidate, the Minnesota senator Amy Klobuchar, appeared on CNN’s State of the Union. After defending her own record on law and order issues, she was asked about Biden’s remarks in Delaware and whether he was progressive enough or not.
Biden had been “running things for a long time”, Klobuchar said, adding that she was sure he would be “able to point to some major accomplishments that are progressive, and will have to explain things that weren’t as progressive”.
“I think every candidate is going to have to do that,” she said.
Biden’s career is so long that he has collected a number of issues on which he attracts criticism from progressives, among them his treatment in 1991 of Anita Hill, who accused supreme court nominee Clarence Thomas of sexual harassment, and his support for school segregation in the 1970s.
The Delaware senator Chris Coons told ABC’s This Week “there are things that [Biden] was involved in or said or voted for 25 or 30 or even 40 years ago that I expect he will get asked about on the trail.
“But he has a real and solid record of stepping forward and being a champion for civil rights, for women’s rights, for LGBTQ rights, and I think that on the whole the Democratic primary electorate will be very satisfied with Joe Biden’s record and his vision for our country.”