Joe Biden strongly defended his civil rights record on Friday, pledging to be a “president who stands against racism” and “the forces of intolerance” and defiantly dismissing any suggestions otherwise.
Speaking to the Reverend Jesse Jackson’s Rainbow Push Coalition, the white former vice president was working to repair the damage from a blistering attack from California Senator Kamala Harris, the lone black woman in the 2020 presidential race.
During Thursday’s presidential debate, Ms Harris criticised Mr Biden for recently highlighting his decades-old work with segregationist senators and his opposition to bussing school pupils during the 1970s, creating a dramatic and deeply personal breakout moment.
“I heard, and I listened to, and I respect Senator Harris,” Mr Biden said.
“But we all know that 30 seconds to 60 seconds on a campaign debate exchange can’t do justice to a lifetime commitment to civil rights.”
Mr Biden has surged to the top of the Democratic pack arguing that he is best positioned to defeat President Donald Trump because he can build a broad coalition of support.
Appearances such as the one with Mr Jackson, his one-time rival in the 1988 Democratic presidential primary, will signal whether Mr Harris’ attack will chip into his support among African Americans.
He acknowledged the critical role of black voters and labour unions on Friday, saying: “Y’all are the ones that brung me to the dance.”
Mr Biden pushed back against some of Harris’ specific criticisms, including her argument that he once opposed bussing, a measure intended to alleviate racial segregation.
He said he was more opposed to federal intervention in bussing than the practice itself.
“I never, never, never, ever opposed voluntary bussing,” Mr Biden said, adding that he supported federal legislation to “address root causes of segregation in our schools” and that he was always “in favour of using federal authority to overcome state-initiated segregation”, even in bygone days when it was not popular.
But even while defending his own record, Mr Biden still tempted controversy.
He said he envisioned a society in which everyone realises the “kid in the hoodie might be the next poet laureate and not a gang-banger”.
The “gang-banger” remark was a reminder of his loose and undisciplined approach to language and a tendency to say things that he doesn’t think will offend his generation but that conjure very different images among others, especially young Americans.
California lawyer Tom McInerney signed up to be on Mr Biden’s national finance team but said he notified the campaign this month that he was withdrawing his support.
He pointed to what he called repeated missteps, including Mr Biden’s comments on segregationists and the former vice president’s recent reversal on the Hyde Amendment, a long-standing congressional ban on using federal health care money to pay for abortions.
His reversal, he now says he opposes the amendment, came after rivals and women’s rights group blasted him for affirming through campaign aides that he still supported the decades-old budget provision.
“I have tremendous respect for the vice president. However, I just became increasingly troubled by his comments,” Mr McInerney said.
“It just seems like he wasn’t thinking this through.”
Mr Biden’s campaign offered no immediate comment on Mr McInerney’s withdrawal.
Also during Friday’s event, Mr Biden leaned heavily on being Barack Obama’s vice president, something he did not do as much during the debate, when Ms Harris’ relentless criticism often left him flustered and seemingly unsure of what to say.
“My president gets much too little credit for all that he did. He was one of the great presidents of the United States of America, and I’m tired of hearing about what he didn’t do,” Mr Biden said of Mr Obama.
Sylvia Chapman, 60, of Chicago, attended Mr Biden’s speech and said Thursday’s confrontation between Ms Harris and Mr Biden was “just a few minutes of talk”.
“You have to look at the whole picture, not just one chapter out of a book,” said Ms Chapman, who is black and is the president of a union local in Chicago.
She said she was undecided about who to support in 2020, but Mr Biden is among the top of her choices, along with Senators Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren and Ms Harris.
Patricia Ousley, 69, a black retired state employee from the Chicago suburb of South Holland, cheered loudly when Mr Biden told the crowd Mr Obama does not get the credit he deserves.
She said Mr Biden’s experience working alongside Mr Obama is a big reason she may support him in 2020: “I love that.”