DOVER, Del. — Joe Biden nearly declared his candidacy several weeks ahead of schedule as he previewed the message he'd take to the campaign, telling his home state Democrats that he had "the most progressive record of anybody running" even as he appealed for a return to bridge-building politics of consensus.
Biden's keynote address to the Delaware Democratic Party's largest annual fundraising dinner was not supposed to be an announcement speech. But for the second time in less than a week he walked close to the line as he addressed a very friendly audience.
As he spoke longingly of what he called the "Delaware Way" — the politics of a small state where Republicans and Democrats can do battle but do so respectfully — Biden noted he has been criticized at times by what he called the "New Left."
"I have the most progressive record of anybody running," he said, prompting a standing ovation from the hundreds on hand and a quick correction from the former vice president. "I didn't mean it. Of anybody who would run!"
"We have to bring this country back together again," he said, returning to his larger argument that reaching consensus is critical.
Biden bemoaned how the nation's political debate has become "so mean, so petty, so vicious that we can't govern ourselves." But he also excoriated President Donald Trump for bringing the nation's democratic institutions to a breaking point, saying the danger posed by his administration "is not hypothetical or exaggerated. It's real. It's existential."
"We better wake up to what's happening right in front of our eyes," he said. "If you asked me a few years ago whether our American democracy would ever crumble, I would have laughed at you."
Biden closed by suggesting that what motivated voters in 2018 to lift Democrats into office across the nation was what he could offer in 2020.
"Everywhere I went there was an insatiable desire by Republicans as well as Democrats for women and men of high character running for public office," he said. "People are making their decisions more on what they believe to be the character and authenticity of the candidate than a particular position they take on an issue. Voters understood that the very character of our country was on the ballot. And they stood up and they spoke. And we won."
Biden's speech Saturday came at something of an informal deadline among his political team for a final decision about the race, as they eye a potential early- to mid-April announcement.
Speakers before Biden all teased the likelihood of a Biden candidacy even as he has insisted no final decision has been made.
Talking with reporters before the dinner, Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.) had little doubt about Biden's plans.
"He has told me he is all but certain to run," he said.