FAIRMONT CITY • Former Vice President Joe Biden, campaigning here for Illinois Democrats on Wednesday afternoon, said America's leaders need "to change the tone" and "dial down the temperature" of political debate.
"This election is bigger than ordinary politics," Biden said at a rally for U.S. House candidate Brendan Kelly and other party nominees. "We're in a situation where the character of the country is on the ballot."
He said "the forces of hate have made their mark" over the past week, citing the massacre of 11 Jewish worshipers Saturday at a Pittsburgh synagogue because of their religion.
He also referred to the shooting deaths of two African-Americans because of their race at a Kentucky grocery and the mailing of explosive devices to prominent critics of President Donald Trump, including Biden himself.
While stopping short of tying Trump's past rhetoric to those incidents, Biden said "we have to recognize that words matter" and that "our political opponents are not our enemies, they are our opponents."
"You know, it's on our leaders ... to begin to change the tone and dial down the temperature" and to restore some dignity to debate, he said.
Later in his 40-minute talk, however, Biden ripped into Trump for "making a moral equivalence" between white supremacists who marched in Charlottesville, Va., last year and people who opposed them.
"That's not happened before in the United States of America" with a president, Biden said.
On the day of the Pittsburgh shootings, Trump condemned the attack as "pure evil" and denounced anti-Semitism. He and his wife visited the synagogue Tuesday to express condolences and later met with some recovering victims at a hospital.
Biden said that average citizens also can help change the tone of political discourse. He said "the way we treat each other, the way we look at each other" and the way we interact on the internet sets a tone.
He said the public is looking across the country "for men and women who have character" and don't belittle their opponents.
More than 400 people packed an Ironworkers Union local's hall in the Metro East community for the event, one of a series of appearances for Democratic candidates Biden has made in recent weeks. Additional people watched from just outside the building.
He lauded Kelly, the St. Clair County state's attorney who is trying to unseat Republican Rep. Mike Bost in the 12th U.S. House district in Tuesday's election.
Among other things, he commended Kelly for setting up a special division in his office to prosecute crimes against children.
Biden also talked up the Democrats' gubernatorial nominee, J.B. Pritzker.
Pritzker also spoke, as did the Democratic nominees for lieutenant governor, attorney general and state treasurer. So did U.S. Sen. Richard Durbin, D-Ill., who isn't on the ballot this year.
Biden followed his stumping for Kelly with a rally in Bridgeton Wednesday night for the re-election bid of Missouri's Democratic U.S. senator, Claire McCaskill.