Joseph R. Biden Jr. faced his first sustained questioning from voters as the Democratic presidential nominee on Thursday, as Pennsylvanians pressed him on issues including health care, racism and policing at a CNN town-hall-style event held less than seven weeks before Election Day.
At a gathering in Moosic, Pa., not far from his childhood home in Scranton, Mr. Biden — who played up his local, middle-class roots — sought at every opportunity to turn the focus to President Trump’s stewardship of the coronavirus, casting the president as a callous leader who cannot empathize with the concerns of most Americans and who has exacerbated the hardships they face.
“You lost your freedom because he didn’t act,” Mr. Biden declared. “The freedom to go to that ballgame, the freedom for your kid to go to school, the freedom to see your mom or dad in the hospital. The freedom just to walk around your neighborhood, because of failure to act responsibly.”
The appearance offered a test of his verbal agility less than two weeks before the first presidential debate, after Mr. Biden spent the summer largely off the campaign trail with limited and often controlled interactions with the news media. Headed into the evening, he may have benefited from the low expectations Republicans have set about his ability to communicate clearly, seeking to throw doubt on his mental acuity.
But as the night got underway, while there was the occasional tangent, Mr. Biden delivered a relatively energetic performance defined by withering criticism of Mr. Trump and palpable enthusiasm for connecting with voters after many months without much significant interaction with them, indicating to several that he would be open to follow-up conversations.
The setting reflected the extraordinary nature of campaigning in a pandemic: A stage was constructed in a parking lot at PNC Field, where the Scranton/Wilkes-Barre minor league baseball team plays. Mr. Biden and CNN’s Anderson Cooper stood a significant distance from each other, and the Democratic nominee often gestured with his mask in hand. Audience members listened from their cars, as if it were a drive-in movie, according to CNN. And voters stood at a distance from Mr. Biden as they asked him questions.
Mr. Biden seemed keenly focused on the location, making frequent references to his working-class ties as he sought to connect in a region where Mr. Trump’s populist message had significant appeal in 2016. The former vice president has long hoped to cut into Mr. Trump’s advantage with white voters without college degrees.
“Maybe it’s my Scranton roots, I don’t know — but when you guys started talking on television about, ‘Biden, if he wins, would be the first person without an Ivy League degree to be elected president,’ I’m thinking, ‘Who the hell makes you think I have to have an Ivy League degree to be president!’” Mr. Biden demanded. Numerous presidents have lacked Ivy League degrees, but he earned applause in the crowd.
“We are as good as anybody else,” Mr. Biden continued. “Guys like Trump who inherited everything and squandered what they inherited are the people that I’ve always had a problem with, not the people who are busting their neck.”
A number of Mr. Biden’s allies have urged his campaign to talk more about the economy, an area where Mr. Trump has traditionally had an advantage, according to polls. Earlier Thursday, as Mr. Trump’s campaign unfurled new ads focused on the economy, Mr. Biden’s advisers painted him as an opponent of “working people.”
“I really do view this campaign as a campaign between Scranton and Park Avenue,” Mr. Biden said that evening. “All he thinks about is the stock market.”
“How many of you all own stock?” Mr. Biden continued. “In my neighborhood in Scranton, not a whole hell of a lot of people own stock.”
In a statement, Tim Murtaugh, a Trump campaign spokesman, said that Mr. Biden should have received more scrutiny of his plans and record on matters including the economy.
“This was classic Joe Biden: untethered to the facts, his own record, or reality,” he said in a statement.
Mr. Biden, for his part, who often seemed to be in a punchy mood, lobbed his own attacks on Mr. Trump’s sense of reality.
“He may be really losing it — he’s president,” Mr. Biden said, as he addressed the civil unrest that has played out in some American cities. “I am not the president. This is Donald Trump’s America. You feel safer in Donald Trump’s America?”
Mr. Biden’s appearance came as he has sought to center the presidential campaign on the response to the coronavirus. On Wednesday, he stepped up his warnings that Mr. Trump is politicizing the rollout of a vaccine, and at the town hall, he discussed the issue at length, stressing his deference to scientists even as he described the staggering uncertainties that would accompany the successful deployment of a vaccine.
The opinion of the federal government’s top infectious disease expert would be important, he said: “I don’t trust the president on vaccines. I trust Dr. Fauci. If Fauci says a vaccine is safe, I’d take the vaccine.”
Throughout the event, Mr. Biden blasted Mr. Trump’s handling of the coronavirus crisis — as he has many other times in recent months — and pointed to revelations from a new book by the journalist Bob Woodward that the president knowingly minimized the risks of the coronavirus. He also sought to connect many voters’ questions back to that subject.
But the issues that arose were wide-ranging, and Mr. Biden seemed keenly attuned to the politics of Pennsylvania.
“I will win Scranton,” Mr. Biden, who visited firefighters after the event, later insisted to reporters, according to a pool report. “Listen to me. I will win Scranton. And we were losing Scranton and Lackawanna County till I got put on the ticket. This is home. I know these people.”
In that critical battleground state, which Mr. Trump won in 2016 and where hydraulic fracturing is both a contentious issue and a source of jobs, Mr. Biden declared that there was “no rationale” for eliminating fracking at the moment.
Also Thursday, Mr. Biden embraced a proposed income subsidy that is a focus of growing Democratic support. The plan, an expansion of the child tax credit, would offer $3,000 per child a year ($3,600 for those under age 6) for all but the wealthiest families — essentially creating a guaranteed income for families with children. Analysts have estimated the move would cost roughly $100 billion a year, a significant sum but less than half the annual cost of Mr. Trump’s tax cuts, which mostly benefit the wealthiest Americans.
Sydney Ember, Thomas Kaplan and Jason DeParle contributed reporting.