Philadelphia (AFP) - As the one true known quantity in the Democratic nomination race, former vice president Joe Biden sits atop the pack of 2020 presidential contenders, relishing the prime position as he hosts a kickoff rally Saturday.
No one knows whether the man who served as number two to popular Democratic president Barack Obama for eight years will run away with this contest -- his third White House bid in as many decades -- or fade out in the months-long test of political skill and stamina to come.
But the former longtime senator and lion of the Democratic Party is gearing up for what is certain to be a titanic battle against President Donald Trump.
After a month of modest events at union halls and pizza joints in early-voting states like Iowa, Biden is counting on making a splash at a rally in Philadelphia, the largest city in must-win Pennsylvania, a state Trump snatched from Democrats in 2016.
He has made Philadelphia his campaign headquarters, in a further sign of the importance he is placing on winning back the state for his party in 2020.
His kickoff will be held near the Philadelphia art museum steps immortalized by the scrappy boxer's run in the movie "Rocky."
Biden was born and raised in Pennsylvania, and the rally is a nod to his modest roots.
But far from being the underdog, Biden is looking to cement his status as the man to beat, the blue-collar voter whisperer who is best positioned to take on and defeat Trump.
And while his delayed entry into the race drew criticism that he might not be ready to mount a thoroughly energized campaign, the slow-and-steady strategy appears to be paying off.
By setting his own terms, limiting media engagements and minimizing chances for going off-script, the gaffe-prone Biden is emphasizing his status as preeminent party dignitary.
Polls give Biden, 76, a comfortable lead over the 22 other hopefuls.
The latest RealClearPolitics aggregate puts him at 39.1 percent support, more than double the 16.4 percent of his nearest rival, liberal Senator Bernie Sanders.
No one else is in double digits.
After a deeply divisive 2016 race, Democratic voters may be looking for an antidote to Trump, the brash politically inexperienced billionaire.
"What matters to them at the moment is a safe choice, a known entity, and somebody who they believe could beat President Trump at his own game," Lara Brown, director of George Washington University's Graduate School of Political Management, told AFP.
Nearly nine months before the first nomination votes are cast, Biden is the lone Democrat, aside from perhaps Sanders, with the celebrity status that comes close to Trump's.
But as voters start paying more attention, Biden -- who to date has campaigned mostly in broad strokes -- will be under pressure to flesh out positions on everything from health care and wages to immigration.
"Biden is the right man for the moment," Brown said. "Whether he will be the right Democrat eight months from now is still really up in the air."
- Blue-collar appeal -
Biden's dominance has already changed the race's dynamic, with its early stars like senators Sanders, Kamala Harris and Elizabeth Warren forced to play catch up, and leveling criticism at the frontrunner.
Warren and Sanders, each of whom is highlighting the need to narrow the nation's economic inequalities, are expected to ramp up criticism of Biden as the embodiment of the Washington establishment.
Several rivals are from a newer generation, putting them at odds with the old-school Biden, whose major challenge may well be appealing to younger voters.
And while candidates like ex-congressman Beto O'Rourke are keeping up relentless schedules, honing their messages at townhalls and meet-and-greets, Biden has opted for more protected environments.
"Let's see what happens when he's taking questions that haven't been vetted," Brown said.
Doing so will require fleshing out his policies, something that has already sparked controversy.
Biden caught flak from liberal groups and candidates for failing to embrace more progressive positions on climate change. He says he will lay out a climate policy in the coming weeks.
He has aligned himself closely with Obama, drawing major support from African American voters, a crucial constituency.
But he will also need to be prepared to lean leftward to acknowledge the party's more progressive tilt.
At the same time, he styles himself, like Trump, as an ardent defender of working class Americans, someone who can win back the Midwestern white, male blue-collar voters who went for the Republican in 2016.
"If you're appealing to older, more mainstream voters, I think the story that's emerging from his campaign is not that he's the agent of radical change, but that he's going to be a more stable leader," said political science professor Robert Boatright of Clark University.