It was all the more striking because Biden and his wife, Jill, boarded their charter Amtrak train the morning after the most caustic presidential debate in modern history, with Biden on the receiving end of many interruptions and insults from President Trump, and delivering some of his own.
But once aboard, Biden presented himself as something quite different: a candidate back on the trail, and more than anything nostalgic for time lost when he sharply curbed his events due to the novel coronavirus.
“I love being on the train,” Biden told reporters, leaning back and giving photographers a money shot of the candidate in action.
At each of six stops after a send-off in Cleveland, Biden offered some version of his stump speech, delivering similar ideas before vastly different backdrops. At times he attracted crowds that, while masked, did not follow the social distancing that has marked other Biden events.
In Alliance, Ohio, speaking on a gravel patch next to the tracks, he said Trump campaigned for the “forgotten” men and women. “But once he got into office he forgot about them,” Biden said.
In Pittsburgh, speaking at the city’s soaring, covered Amtrak platform, Biden said Trump left a “trail of lies” through the industrial Midwest as he abandoned promises he’d made in 2016.
“The Forgotten Men and Women of America know that President Trump has never stopped fighting for them,” said Trump campaign spokesman Ken Farnaso, adding that Biden is the one who is “out of touch” and a “Washington elitist.”
Later in the day, in New Alexandria, Pa., speaking in front of a yellow tractor and a dump truck at a union training facility, Biden reminisced about traveling from his home in Wilmington, Del., to Washington during his decades in the Senate, racking up what he said were more than 2 million miles on Amtrak.
“I used to, literally, look out that window and sit there and see the lights on in the houses,” Biden said in New Alexandria. “I’d wonder — do they have the same kinds of conversations at those tables like I did?” he said, recounting family discussions about whether new tires or a new water heater would cost too much.
Biden’s trip was officially called the “Build Back Better Express,” after the title of his recovery plan. It could just as well have been called the “close the margins tour,” as he journeyed through rural areas and towns where Clinton lost to Trump.
Biden said he believes he’s picking up support from voters who used to be Democrats. “They’re coming back home,” he said in Johnstown, Pa.
“I think some we can win back. Others, it’s about cutting the margins. Even if we just cut the margins it makes a gigantic difference. A gigantic difference,” Biden said.
Biden referred to the previous day’s events a few times, most memorably at the stop in Alliance, when he called Tuesday night’s debate a “national embarrassment.”
Normal campaigning can feel a little odd after all those months spent mostly campaigning virtually. Biden hadn’t had a day this busy since he essentially sewed up the nomination in March, and it showed.
As he was speaking in Cleveland, a freight train pulled out of the yard, honking, and Biden went a little off-track. “Here comes the train that he’s trying to make sure you . . .” Biden said, his words, with no clear destination, becoming inaudible as the train honked louder.
Later, in Alliance, he referred to the debate in an unusual way. “Tables like the one that we saw last night were ones that were set by Trump,” Biden said. It was not clear what he meant.
Collectively, Biden saw bigger crowds Wednesday than he has since in-person campaigning was paused. In Alliance, several hundred gathered as he spoke. In Greensburg, Pa., hundreds chanted, “Let’s go, Joe! Let’s go, Joe” and cheered when he walked off the train and waved to them. A few dozen Trump supporters showed up too, and surged forward as he waved to his supporters.
Harriet Ellenberger, 77, was among a handful of people who greeted Biden as he stepped off his train in Greensburg. “After last night’s episode on TV, I was so depressed that I thought I should really come out and show him support,” Ellenberger said.
Ed Farley, who wore a yellow “Firefighters for Biden” shirt, cheered for the candidate in Pittsburgh. “He’s saving the country right now,” Farley said, explaining why he came out to see Biden. “I have young daughters.”
But there also were more intimate moments. Before boarding the train, he chatted briefly with the conductor, Don Lewis, who later said that he was star-struck by the former vice president. The conductor worked on trains for more than four decades — and this was his final trip before retiring.
During various segments of the trip Biden rode in a diner car with select people invited by the campaign. Visitors included Thomas Conway, the president of the United Steelworkers, who told Biden that he’d just cast his ballot for the former vice president.
“Let’s just call the race right now,” Biden joked.
Some visitors had difficulty hearing Biden through his black cloth mask. It kept dropping below his nose; finally he lowered it so the men could hear him.
Biden discussed his love of Italy. “When I die, I want to be reborn on the Amalfi Coast,” Biden said. Then he shifted gears. “How are you doing?” he asked. “How’s business?” One man lamented the difficulty of finding health care.
The chartered train had two engines, in case one broke down. The working engine pulled seven other cars — four passenger cars, a working cafe car, a dining car to which Biden invited reporters to listen in on some of his chats, and “the president’s car,” where Biden and his top aides rode. That car featured a special glass back, giving Biden a spectacular view of the passing landscape. His team hammed it up a bit, distributing plastic identification cards designed like Amtrak tickets to riders.
At one stop before Biden’s remarks, he was asked jokingly if he used Amtrak points to pay for the charter train. He quipped that he has enough points to do it — but wanted to save them for a trip after the election is over. Asked if he was sitting in a quiet car, he just laughed.
The continuing pandemic ensured that not everything was back to normal. Everyone onboard was asked to wear N95 masks, not simple cloth ones. The team distributed little bottles of hand sanitizer. They were branded “Build Back Better.”