WASHINGTON — Former Vice President Joe Biden on Friday made light of his recent controversy about crossing physical boundaries with women, and he signaled in a resolute speech to union activists that's he's ready to run for president as a moderate Democrat in party that has been drifting left.
Biden, 76, opened his speech to a conference of electrical workers joking that he had "permission" to hug the union leader who introduced him. He later repeated the quip about a boy he invited up on stage. The remarks won cheers from the overwhelmingly male audience, but angered some of the activist women Biden has sought to convince he "gets" their concerns about his famously touchy-feely, and some say dated, style.
During his speech at the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers conference and afterward to reporters, Biden defended his focus on the "personal connection" in politics.
"I'm sorry I didn't understand more. I'm not sorry for any of my intentions," he told reporters. "I'm not sorry for anything I've ever done -- I've never been disrespectful, intentionally, to a man or a woman."
Biden all but declared he intended to join the race for the Democratic presidential nomination, telling reporters he's "putting everything together, man." He noted his lawyers had warned him to speak carefully about his intentions but said he expected to "be standing before you all relatively soon."
He also suggested his strategy. In a nostalgia-soaked speech, Biden made clear he would position himself outside the progressive wing of the party and seek support from traditional Democrats and the working-class voters who backed Donald Trump in 2016.
Biden said criticism of his bipartisan leanings was coming from the "far left" and reupped his appeal for compromise — a sometimes unpopular view in the Trump-era.
He bemoaned modern politics that's "gotten so damn elitist."
"The vast majority of the members of the Democratic party are still basically liberal to moderate Democrats in the traditional sense," Biden said. As to where he falls on ideological lines, he said, "I'm an Obama-Biden Democrat, man. And I'm proud of it."
But signs of changes in the party have been evident in recent complaints about Biden's history of publicly affectionate behavior with women. Nevada politician Lucy Flores said she was uncomfortable when Biden kissed her on the back of the head backstage at a 2014 campaign event. Her account was countered by scores of women — from prominent lawmakers to former staffers — who praised him as a warm, affectionate person and a supportive boss. But several other women have also come forward to recount their own awkward interactions with him.
Flores panned Biden's remarks Friday, tweeting: "To make light of something as serious as consent degrades the conversation women everywhere are courageously trying to have."
Ultra Violet, a women's rights group that initially urged Biden to do better, also reacted sharply:
"Joe Biden's 'jokes' were shameful, and not how a so-called 'champion of women' should act," the group posted on Twitter. "He sent a very clear signal to women today - he just doesn't respect them."
Biden did say the controversy "is going to have to change somewhat how I campaign."
That controversy aside, Biden's address seemed intended to highlight how he could win back white, blue-collar workers like those who supported Trump in 2016. He seemed to criticize his own party for walking away from the demographic.
He recounted a time when, he said, the dignity of teachers, sanitation and electrical line workers was treasured and the nation felt it had a common purpose. Saying his father, a salesman, told him to respect everyone, Biden alluded to various "sophisticated friends" who don't get the significance of treating blue-collar laborers as equals.
"All you're looking for is to be treated fairly, with respect, with some dignity," Biden said. "Because you matter."
Biden also noted he'd gotten criticism from the left for saying Democrats should work with Republicans to get things done, and in defending President Barack Obama's signature law, the Affordable Care Act, which some Democratic presidential aspirants want to replace with a single-payer health care system.
"We need to build on it," Biden said of the law. "What we can't do is blow it up."
Shortly after Biden was finished speaking, Trump hit back. "I've employed thousands of Electrical Workers," the president tweeted as his plane flew toward the Mexican border with California. "They will be voting for me!"
However, the IBEW endorsed Hillary Clinton over Trump in 2016.
Biden's advisers had signaled ahead of the speech that he was not going to mention the physical-touching controversy. But he attempted to defuse it by embracing the union's male president and kidding about it. While that may have landed with a thud to some outside the room, the labor leaders rose to their feet and applauded.
The criticism of Biden's form of affection is a symptom of what ails not just politics but American life, said Denise Johnson, an attendee from Mechanicsville, Maryland.
"He's a warm and affectionate person. He's sincere and he speaks from his heart," said Johnson, who works for the IBEW in Washington. "But in the society we live, we're losing that warmth. We need to get it back. This could actually rally for him."
Friday was the second time in two days that President Trump attacked Biden on Twitter. Despite more than a dozen women who have accused Trump of sexual misconduct, on Thursday the president posted a doctored version of a cellphone video Biden released addressing the controversy over his touching. In Trump's version, a Biden avatar approaches Biden from behind and appears to grab his shoulders.
Trump has denied the allegations of sexual misconduct, and on Friday he told reporters he saw no reason to avoid going after Biden on the issue. "Yeah, I think I'm a very good messenger and people got a kick out of it," Trump said.
None of the 2020 Democratic presidential candidates commented on Biden's appearance.
Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, when asked after an event thanking small donors if she had ever felt uncomfortable around Biden, said, "I've said all I'm going to say about Joe Biden."
Riccardi reported from Denver. AP writer Alexandra Jaffe in Waterloo, Iowa, contributed to this report.