PHILADELPHIA — Joseph R. Biden Jr., sometimes known to Democrats in this city as Pennsylvania’s “third senator,” returned to the state of his birth on Saturday to deliver a forceful call for national unity, looking past the Democratic presidential primary to directly appeal to the voters who helped power President Trump’s victory in this state and across the country in 2016.
Mr. Biden, former vice president and former Delaware senator who is now pursuing his third bid for the presidency, trained his eye squarely on the general election as he cast the contest against Mr. Trump as one for the soul of the country. And he struck a defiant tone toward those in his own party who had expressed discomfort with Mr. Biden’s emphasis on bipartisanship and his legacy of Washington deal-making, as he argued that the stakes of the coming presidential election should transcend partisan passions of the moment.
“They say Democrats are so angry, the angrier a candidate can be, the better chance he or she has to win the Democratic nomination,” Mr. Biden said. “Well I don’t believe it, I really don’t.”
“If the American people want a president to add to our division, lead with a clenched fist, closed hand, a hard heart, to demonize the opponents and spew hatred — they don’t need me,” he went on, speaking at the first large-scale rally of his campaign. “They’ve got President Donald Trump. Folks, I am running to offer our country — Democrats, Republicans and independents — a different path. Not back to a path that never was, but to a future that fulfills our true potential as a country.”
But before Republicans and independents have the opportunity to consider Mr. Biden’s candidacy, he will first have to convince Democrats that, as a 76-year-old Caucasian man with stances on issues including criminal justice, abortion rights and foreign policy that can seem out of step with many Democrats today, he is still best suited to represent a party that has moved left in recent years, animated by a young and diverse progressive flank.
Many of those voters have little patience for Mr. Biden’s overtures toward Republicans, and are clamoring for the sweeping progressive change offered up by a host of Mr. Biden’s competitors.
In his appearance Saturday, Mr. Biden stressed that he shares traditional Democratic policy priorities such as combating climate change, protecting voting rights and women’s rights, and expanding access to healthcare. He pointed to his decades in Washington as evidence that he knows how to deliver. But he said that none of those goals could be achieved with Mr. Trump in the White House, and he repeatedly turned the focus back to defeating him.
“If you want to know what the first, most important plank in my climate proposal is, beat Trump,” he said, referencing a policy issue that had sparked criticism against Mr. Biden from the left over concerns that his future climate change proposals would not be far-reaching enough. “Beat Trump, beat Trump.”
Indeed, in interviews, attendees at Mr. Biden’s event signaled that that is their priority as well.
“He’s more moderate in the stream of Democrats,” said Jan Wormington, 73, of Willow Grove, Pa. — where Jill Biden, Mr. Biden’s wife, grew up. “I have a lot of friends that are Republican. If a Democrat is going to win, we have to be in the more moderate lane,” she noted.
Asked if it was too soon for Mr. Biden to be focusing on Mr. Trump when he had yet to win the crowded Democratic primary, she made clear that her focus was on the general election, too: “Whatever he needs to do to win.”
He got some of the most raucous applause of the day when he took swipes at the president, pledging to defeat him and needling him, for example, over the strong economy, which had been one of the Trump campaign’s central messages.
“Just look at the facts, not the alternative facts,” Mr. Biden said. “President Trump inherited an economy from the Obama-Biden administration that was given to him, just like he inherited everything else in life.”
Mr. Biden’s appearance at Eakins Oval, a green plaza at the base of the Philadelphia Art Museum where the city’s skyline served as a backdrop, unfolded just across town from the site of former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s 2016 election eve rally with President Barack Obama — an intended passing of the Democratic torch that instead crumbled the next night.
The Democratic loss of Pennsylvania in 2016, a crucial piece of Mr. Trump’s victory, was top of mind for Mr. Biden’s supporters ahead of the first large-scale rally of his campaign. Several of his most prominent supporters pointed to a Quinnipiac University poll from this past week that showed Mr. Biden with a lead of 11 percentage points over Mr. Trump in a head-to-head matchup in this state, besting rivals such as Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont at this early juncture.
“Trump can’t win this election, he can only have the Democrats lose it,” said former Gov. Ed Rendell of Pennsylvania, warning that the president would paint the Democratic Party as one that wants to “turn the country into a socialist country,” aiming to scare “the living bejabbers out of people.”
“The best defense, the person most difficult to accomplish those goals against, is Biden,” he said.
Throughout the Saturday afternoon rally, which security officials said drew 6,000 people, Mr. Biden and his campaign made frequent references to Philadelphia as the “birthplace of democracy,” and to his own ties to this politically crucial state, where his headquarters would be based and where he began his initial campaign swing last month. The audience was smaller than crowds drawn by some of his rivals at similar events, but his campaign suggested it had chosen the venue for its symbolism rather than for its relatively modest size.
“To become president, you’re going to have to go through Pennsylvania,” said Representative Dwight Evans, a Democrat whose congressional district includes the slice of Philadelphia where Mr. Biden spoke Saturday.
“He’s no stranger to Pennsylvania,” Mr. Evans continued. “That’s very important to understand. He’s not going to take Pennsylvania for granted. He’s going to work, hustle, that’s what he’s doing.”