SALT LAKE CITY — Former Vice President Joe Biden may have been mum about his presidential plans when he spoke at the University of Utah last December, but his entry into the race Thursday is sparking interest among the state's Democrats.
"Of all the 20 (announced Democratic presidential candidates), he's going to excite a lot of Utah Democrats," said Utah Democratic Party Chairwoman Daisy Thomas. "He has developed an audience here. He is known as Uncle Joe."
Biden, a U.S. senator representing Delaware for decades, served with former Utah Republican Sen. Orrin Hatch on the powerful Senate Judiciary Committee, and later encouraged now-Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, to run for Hatch's seat.
The two-term vice president under President Barack Obama filled the U.'s Kingsbury Hall to capacity for a speech last year about what led him to a life in politics but stopped short of addressing speculation about a White House run.
Thomas, a leader of Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders' 2016 presidential campaign in Utah, said the state's Democrats are looking for a nominee who can beat the Republican bidding for another term in the White House, President Donald Trump.
"Democrats across the board understand this is the election that's going to make or break our future," Thomas said. "We want someone able to focus on the healing of our country because our country is so deeply divided. It's completely polarized."
That division was the theme of Biden's campaign launch video, which cited Trump's declaration that there were "very fine people" among the white supremacists whose 2017 march in Charlottesville, Virginia, resulted in the death of a protester.
"I knew the threat to our nation was unlike any I’d ever seen in my lifetime," Biden, 76, says in the video released Thursday. “We are in the battle for the soul of this nation.”
Utahns' familiarity with Biden does give him a signficant advantage over the rest of the Democratic field, said Chris Karpowitz, co-director of BYU's Center for the Study of Elections and Democracy.
Add in the president's relative unpopularity in a GOP-dominated state, Karpowitz said, and a Biden-Trump matchup in the 2020 general election could turn into a real race in Utah.
"My initial expectation is that he could be competitive in a general election, especially if he runs a sort of moderate general election campaign," the political science professor said.
Still, Utah hasn't elected a Democrat for president since 1964, a statistic that's not likely to change anytime soon given the political makeup of the state and the pressure in a primary election to shift away from the political center.
"If he can get through the primary, perhaps he can make Utah interesting," Karpowitz said of Biden. "It could be fun, though the Republican nominee will always have an advantage in the state."
Don Peay, who helped lead Trump's campaign in Utah in 2016 and remains close to the president's family, said Biden would be the strongest Democratic candidate in Utah.
"But Trump still wins significantly. He is accomplishing too many good things," Peay said, adding he doesn't expect to see Biden's name on the general election ballot because Democrats "are hellbent on a far-left, progressive" agenda.
Biden is "more of a moderate and centrist" who holds appeal for Utahns, Peay said. Trump, though, has come through for the state's majority conservatives, especially with his U.S. Supreme Court appointments, he said.
"People don't like the tweets and the harsh tone," Peay said of Utahns' reaction to the president. "But for the things that matter in their lives, Trump is delivering results."
Utah is holding a presidential primary election next year on Super Tuesday, March 3. Democratic candidates are already starting to make appearances in the state, with Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren holding a rally in Salt Lake City last week.
Trump leads the 2020 presidential contenders in raising campaign cash from Utahns, with nearly $111,000 from the state, according to the most recent information on the Federal Election Commission website, which does not include Biden.
Sanders is next, with more than $16,000 from Utahns, followed by South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg, with $8,400; California Sen. Kamala Harris, with more than $6,900; and Warren, with more than $6,300.
In 2016, Sanders scored a big victory in Utah over the party's eventual nominee that year, former first lady and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, in what was a Democratic presidential preference caucus vote.
Trump, however, finished a distant third among Utah Republicans, trailing Texas Sen. Ted Cruz and Ohio Gov. John Kasich. While Trump won Utah in November 2016, it was with 45 percent of the vote, his lowest margin of victory nationwide.
Fox News contributor Jason Chaffetz, a former Utah Republican congressman, said Sanders "excites those who believe in socialism. There's a small faction of Utahns who will show up at a rally and cheer for that. But it's a radical left."
Biden may not fit that description, but Chaffetz said Utahns aren't clamoring for his extensive experience in Washington, D.C. Instead, he said, the state's Democratic voters may prefer a fresh face.
"I don't know what excitement he brings to that," Chaffetz said of Biden. "He's doing his presidential announcement and not even having a rally. I think he's going to have a hard time getting crowds to show up for him."
The Democrat best able to take on Trump in Utah and the rest of the country is "to be determined," he said, suggesting it may not matter much who the Democrats ultimately choose.
"If Donald Trump plays his A game, he will win going away," Chaffetz said. "The economy's thriving, the world's a safer place and he's done exactly what he said he would do on the Supreme Court."