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Former U.S. vice-president Joe Biden is the front-runner in a crowded Democratic field after announcing his long-awaited 2020 presidential campaign.

Jessica Griffin/The Associated Press

Joe Biden has launched his long-awaited presidential campaign with a broadside at Donald Trump, framing the 2020 contest as a “battle for the soul of this nation.”

The 76-year-old enters a crowded field as the clear front-runner, expected to mix his appeal as an experienced moderate with the nostalgia factor of his vice-presidency under Barack Obama.

But his Democratic candidacy faces tough questions about whether a white, male, septuagenarian centrist can excite a party that has lurched to the left in recent years on the strength of a new generation of young activists. He also steps into a race that showcases a record number of female presidential candidates at a time when his treatment of women’s personal space is under increasing scrutiny.

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In a video announcing his candidacy Thursday, Mr. Biden spoke from Charlottesville, Va. He contrasted the Declaration of Independence – whose primary author, Thomas Jefferson, was from the Charlottesville area – with Mr. Trump’s infamous comment that there were “some very fine people” among the white supremacists who rioted in the city two years ago.

“If we give Donald Trump eight years in the White House, he will forever and fundamentally alter the character of this nation, who we are,” Mr. Biden said. “The core values of this nation, our standing in the world, our very democracy, everything that has made America America is at stake.”

The effort will be Mr. Biden’s third attempt at the presidency, after previous runs in 1988 and 2008. A lawyer by training, he spent 36 years as a senator from Delaware before becoming Mr. Obama’s second-in-command.

Born in Scranton, a blue-collar city of 80,000 in the low-lying mountains of Northeastern Pennsylvania, Mr. Biden’s family decamped to Delaware when he was 10 years old as his father searched for work. But Mr. Biden has traded heavily on his roots in this area, helping sell the intellectual Mr. Obama to working-class white voters in the Rust Belt.

And they will be a key part of his argument in the primaries: that he can win back Pennsylvania, which went to Mr. Trump in 2016. Lackawanna, the county that includes Scranton, is a Democratic stronghold but backed Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton by just three points that year; Mr. Trump carried neighbouring Luzerne County by a 19-point margin.

Jean Harris, a political scientist at the University of Scranton, said Mr. Biden’s strength lies in contrasting his reassuring persona with the chaos of the current White House. And she contends that, even if left-wing voices often dominate the Democratic Party, most of its supporters are actually closer to the political centre.

“The core of the Democrats are still more moderate than left,” Prof. Harris told The Globe and Mail. “People are looking for someone who will bring some respect to the position, given the current presidential administration. People are looking for a steady hand, and he has a long history.”

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The polls universally give Mr. Biden an edge, at least in the early going. A RealClearPolitics average puts him at 29 per cent, compared with 23 per cent for socialist Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders.

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the New York congresswoman who has become the face of millennial progressives, summed up the left’s attitude toward Mr. Biden when she greeted the prospect of his candidacy last week with a shrug.

“That does not particularly animate me right now,” she told a Yahoo podcast when asked about the notion of Mr. Biden running. “I don’t want to go back. I want to go forward.”

Mr. Biden has also come under fire for getting into women’s personal space. Earlier this month, three women recounted feeling uncomfortable with different behaviours of his at political events, including laying his hands on their shoulders, smelling their hair, pressing his forehead to theirs and holding their hands. In a video, Mr. Biden acknowledged that he had failed to adapt to changing social norms and vowed to be “much more mindful” in future.

Kathy Bozinski, vice-chair of the Luzerne County Democratic Committee, said the divide in the party is apparent locally, even as Mr. Trump’s victory has re-energized the organization.

“There are some of the long-time Democrats, but then there are also new groups of young professionals and college students,” she said in an interview. “The tricky thing has been to balance the perspectives of all of them and bring them together to work toward the common goal.”

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One long-time Scranton Democrat is insurance agent Tom Bell, a childhood friend of Mr. Biden’s. Sitting in a downtown restaurant, he fondly reminisced about the young Joe’s fearlessness: There was the time the pair climbed a smoking pile of culm, or coal-mining refuse, on a dare. Or when they sneaked into a construction site to swing on ropes that ironworkers had set up to hoist beams.

He has kept in touch with Mr. Biden over the years and his children even interned in his Senate office. But Mr. Bell voted for Mr. Trump in 2016. In part, he said, he found Hillary Clinton “untrustworthy.” In part, he cited the Democrats’ long-term shift to the left on cultural issues, such as supporting abortion access, which Mr. Bell opposes. And he also agreed with Mr. Trump’s anti-immigrant policies.

“We’re ruining Western civilization. It’s being ruined,” he said. “You cannot flood a place.”

Such attitudes raise one of the thorniest issues for the Democrats: Beyond the question of how to win back voters such as Mr. Bell is the broader question of whether it is even worth trying, given that doing so would compromise the party’s progressive values.

Jenis Walsh, a 33-year-old aesthetician who sits on the state party committee, contends that the battle for the Democrats is not about bringing people such as Mr. Bell back into the fold, but in motivating other constituencies – such as young people – that historically have been underrepresented at the polls.

“There are certain people who will always be lost in the fray – you can scream into a void as much as you want, you can’t change their mind no matter how much logic or reason you have,” she said at a coffee shop in neighbouring Wilkes-Barre. “You have to stop pandering to that base and start working with a different base.”

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