Former Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell defended Joe Biden Friday as the former vice president tried to defuse with humor his recent controversy about crossing physical boundaries with women.
Biden kicked off his speech making light of the allegations after embracing the International Brotherhood of Electrical Worker's male president, Lonnie Stephenson.
"I just want you to know, I had permission to hug Lonnie," Biden joked to the largely male audience, which responded with cheers.
Later, Biden invited a group of children in the audience to join him onstage and put his arm around one boy.
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"By the way, he gave me permission to touch him," Biden joked again.
The jokes didn't sit well with everyone. Almost immediately, headlines surfaced suggesting that Biden didn't understand the effect those comments could have on his campaign or that he is out of touch with today's #MeToo voters.
But former chair of the Democratic National Committee and Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell defended Biden's comments on MSNBC shortly after the speech.
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"Joe Biden has hugged me and grabbed my shoulders on many occasions. I thought it was just fine," Rendell said.
"The polls have shown pretty clearly that Democrats don't take this seriously. They understand it may have been inappropriate but it wasn't sexual. He's not a predator. He's a good guy."
Rendell added that if Biden were to be nominated to run against President Donald Trump in 2020, the former VP "would be in good shape."
Biden, 76, is considered the leading moderate in a sprawling Democratic field that has been debating such issues as reparations for slavery, single-payer health care and free college. But, talking to reporters after addressing members of IBEW, Biden said he was proud of his own early support for gay marriage and other liberal stands.
"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, Biden added: "I'm an Obama-Biden Democrat, man. And I'm proud of it."
Still, signs of shifts in feelings 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.
Afterward he spoke with reporters about the recent controversy.
"I'm sorry I didn't understand more. I'm not sorry for any of my intentions. I'm not sorry for anything I've ever done -- I've never been disrespectful, intentionally, to a man or a woman."
Flores wasn't impressed. She tweeted: "To make light of something as serious as consent degrades the conversation women everywhere are courageously trying to have."
Biden did say the controversy "is going to have to change somewhat how I campaign." Though he hasn't formally announced, Biden on Friday made clear he's expecting to run again for president, saying lawyers warned him he needs to speak carefully about his intentions but that he expects to "be standing before you all relatively soon."
Biden's address seemed intended to highlight how he could win back white, blue-collar workers like those who supported Donald Trump in 2016. Biden seemed to criticize his own party for walking away from the demographic in a nostalgia-drenched, 40-minute address.
"The rank and file folks, they don't care about [the allegations]," Rendell said. "They care more about what Joe Biden will do about infrastructure. What he will do about the economy. How he’s going to shorten the income disparity that exists in this country."
Biden 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 had to work with Republicans to get things done, and in defending President Obama's signature law, the Affordable Care Act, which some Democratic presidential aspirants want to replace with a single-payer 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!"
The IBEW endorsed Hillary Clinton over Trump in 2016.
Friday was the second time in two days the president 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.
Nicholas Riccardi reported from Denver. AP writer Alexandra Jaffe in Waterloo, Iowa, contributed to this report.