Hartford — Former Vice President Joe Biden, a target of the pipe bombs mailed to critics of President Donald J. Trump, called on both parties Friday to lower the temperature of political discourse in America while heading a Democratic rally framing the 2018 election in urgent and even apocalyptic terms.
“This country has to come together,” Biden told a partisan audience that a party spokesman said topped 1,300 in a packed gymnasium and overflow room. “Our political opponents are not our enemies.”
“We’re so much better than this. We just have to remember who we are,” Biden said.
But conciliation was a fleeting message at an event built around anger directed at President Trump and Republicans in Washington. Opposition to the president has been an organizational principle of Connecticut Democrats since election night in 2016, and Biden and the Democratic ticket repeatedly returned to a need to resist the GOP.
“Stay angry — vote. And take five people to the polls with you,” U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal, a Democrat not on the midterm election ballot, told the raucous crowd at the Learning Corridor, an educational complex near Trinity College. Bill Clinton led a rally for Gov. Dannel P. Malloy in the same gym in 2014.
With measures of defiance and regret, Blumenthal and Biden each mentioned the bombs mailed to a number of high-profile Democrats, including former President Barack Obama, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and Biden.
“We know in this nation ballots always win against bombs,” Blumenthal said.
Biden was joined on stage by the gubernatorial nominee, Ned Lamont, U.S. Sen. Chris Murphy, and Jahana Hayes, the former U.S. teacher of the year who is trying to become the first black woman elected to Congress from New England.
Hayes is running in the 5th Congressional District, not in the 1st of Greater Hartford. But she is the Democratic Party’s breakout star in Connecticut in 2018, a former teenage mother who managed to stay in school, advancing through community college to both a four-year and a master’s degree.
“I know what happens when government works,” Hayes said. “I am what happens when government works.”
All the speakers cast the election as a fight over what it means to be an American.
“Democracy is on the ballot, my friends,” said Murphy, who is seeking re-election to a second term.
Lamont equated his Republican opponent, Bob Stefanowski, with Trump, the president Stefanowski says deserves an A grade for his time in office. Lamont mocked Stefanowski’s promise to phase out the income tax over eight years, calling it a “Trumpian tax scheme.”
The most recent poll shows Lamont with a lead over Stefanowski that falls within the margin of error.
“I need you every day for the next 11 days to roll up your sleeves and fight,” Lamont said.
But the urban rally came amid concerns that the campaign has yet to energize voters in the cities, where Democrats tend to win or lose statewide elections.
“The energy and enthusiasm is low,” said Steve Harris, a former Hartford councilman who is a district Democratic leader in the city’s North End. “It’s going to be a ground game, knocking on doors and pulling votes.”
Jean Holloway, a naturalized U.S. citizen from Jamaica and long-time political activist, said she believes the city’s West Indian population can and will be energized by Trump’s antagonistic views to immigrants, including an investigation launched in June looking for fraud in the citizenship process by long-term citizens.
“After 40 years in this country, he is going to look at my papers?” Holloway said.
Biden has traveled the country in October campaigning for Democratic U.S. Senate, U.S. House and gubernatorial candidates in tight races in a number of states, including Kentucky, Florida, Indiana, Nevada, Ohio, Michigan and New York.
His re-emergence, which Biden attributed to revulsion at Trump’s response to the violence and neo-Nazi march in Charlottesville, has stoked speculation that he might run for president in 2020.
“I could not remain silent after Charlottesville,” Biden said, complaining that the president drew “a moral equivalence” between the white nationalists and those who demonstrated against them. “This is about who we are. I never thought I’d see this.”
Ron Schurin, political science professor at the University of Connecticut, said Biden is campaigning not only for Democrats in tight races, but for himself.
“He’s coming here and other places on behalf of Joe Biden and as a potential 2020 candidate,” Schurin said. “Which is not to say that he doesn’t sincerely support Lamont and Hayes.”
In a recent CNN poll, Biden was the favored candidate among Democrats to run for president in 2020. He received 33 percent of the support of those polled, followed by Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders who received 13 percent and California Sen. Kamala Harris who received 9 percent.
Time is not on Biden’s side. He turns 76 next month and would be 78 in November of 2020, nine years older than Ronald Reagan when he took office. Trump was 70 when he took office.
Schurin called Biden a “unifying Democrat,” who isn’t as divisive as other high-profile Democrats, but can still energize the base.
“Hayes is in a better position that Lamont because the polls are very tight in the governor’s race, but he will help both candidates mobilize the Democratic base,” Schurin said.
Reporter Ana Radelat contributed to this story.