Election 2020 Joe Biden

Democratic presidential candidate and former Vice President Joe Biden greets people at Gianni's Pizza, in Wilmington Del., Thursday, April 25, 2019. Jessica Griffin/The Philadelphia Inquirer via AP)

WASHINGTON — Declaring the “soul of this nation” at stake, former Vice President Joe Biden pushed into the crowded 2020 presidential contest Thursday and quickly sparked a fierce debate over the direction of the modern-day Democratic Party.

Ignoring the political noise in his own party, Biden aimed directly at Donald Trump in an announcement video seizing on the Republican president’s response to the deadly clash between white supremacists and counter-protesters in Charlottesville, Virginia, two years ago. That was the spur for him to launch a third presidential bid, Biden said, noting Trump’s comments that there were some “very fine people” on both sides of the violent encounter, which left one woman dead.

“We are in the battle for the soul of this nation,” Biden declared. “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. And I cannot stand by and watch that happen.”

Yet Biden will get a chance to take on Trump only if he survives a Democratic field that now spans at least 20 contenders. And his party’s more liberal wing was far from welcoming in the hours immediately after he declared his candidacy. Justice Democrats, a group created from the remnants of Bernie Sanders’ failed 2016 campaign, came out against Biden on Thursday and spent much of the day assailing him on social media.

As an older white man with often centrist views, Biden must now prove he’s not out of step with Democrats trying to push the party to the left.

He’s been taking steps in recent weeks to clean up perceived missteps from his long record in elected office, including his role as a senator in allowing sexual harassment accuser Anita Hill to be grilled by an all-male committee during Clarence Thomas’ Supreme Court confirmation hearings.

A campaign aide said Biden has privately contacted Hill to share “his regret for what she endured and his admiration for everything she has done to change the culture around sexual harassment in this country.” But The New York Times reported Thursday that Hill said in an interview she was deeply unsatisfied and unconvinced by his apology.

Biden has also highlighted his role in authoring the Violence Against Women Act nearly three decades ago, legislation that is credited with reducing domestic violence nationwide.

Still, the 76-year-old Scranton, Pennsylvania, native’s political liabilities are many.

He would be the oldest person ever elected president — Trump was 70 in 2016 — even as his party embraces a new generation of diversity. He has yet to outline his positions on issues defining the 2020 Democratic primary, most notably “Medicare for All,” the universal health care plan authored by Sanders that has been embraced in one form or another by virtually the entire Democratic field.

Biden is betting that his working-class appeal and ties to Barack Obama’s presidency will help him win over Starting Gate.”

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