By Kevin Liptak and Betsy Klein, CNN
Washington (CNN) — President Joe Biden took harsh aim at Donald Trump as “determined to destroy democracy” at a campaign fundraiser Monday, launching some of his fiercest condemnation to date of his predecessor in a preview of next year’s election rematch.
Biden also sought to rebut chronic questions about his age, claiming his long experience in Washington gave him the wisdom to steer the nation forward.
The off-camera speech offered a glimpse into Biden’s campaign message as his reelection effort intensifies. Instead of his usual recitation of his economic record, Biden took aim squarely at what he said were Republican attempts at subverting democracy.
“In 2024, democracy is on the ballot once again,” Biden said. “And let there be no question: Donald Trump and his MAGA Republicans are determined to destroy American democracy, and I will always defend, protect and fight for our democracy. That’s why I’m running.”
Biden has spent much of the past year touting his economic record in office, but his approval ratings remain anemic and even many Democrats say they don’t want him to run for a second term.
In his remarks at the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre in Times Square, where he was speaking at a concert fundraiser featuring several prominent performers, Biden appeared to be testing new material on a receptive crowd, using new attack lines and addressing the age issue head on.
The new lines were a stark attempt at contrasting with the prohibitive Republican front-runner and a major departure from Biden’s previous attempts to distance himself from his predecessor’s legal issues.
Only a few weeks ago, as Trump was surrendering at the Fulton County jail on charges related to his attempts to cling to power, Biden made light of his mug shot.
On Monday, he accused Trump and fellow Republicans of siding with dictators and dividing the country.
“I will not side with dictators like (Russian President Vladimir) Putin. Maybe Trump and his MAGA friends can bow down and praise him, but I won’t,” Biden said.
“I don’t believe America is a dark, negative nation, a nation of carnage driven by anger, fear and revenge. Donald Trump does,” he added later.
Citing Trump’s vow if reelection to act as “retribution” for his supporters, Biden asked: “Did you ever think you’d hear a president of the United States speak like that? Well, I believe we are a hopeful, optimistic nation driven by the proposition that everyone deserves a shot.”
Biden, speaking from a two-tiered cast iron set for a Sweeney Todd revival currently playing on Broadway, also sought to confront the issue of his advanced age, which polls show remains a major concern for American voters. At 80, Biden would be 86 at the end of a potential second term.
“A lot of people seem focused on my age. Believe me, I know better than anyone,” the president said, going on to use his experience as rationale for his reelection.
“When this nation was flat on its back, I knew what to do,” he said.
On Ukraine, he said “I knew what to do, to rebuild alliances.”
“When democracy was at stake, I knew what to do,” he concluded.
CNN polling conducted by SSRS in late August found roughly three-quarters of Americans say they’re seriously concerned that Biden’s age might negatively affect his current level of physical and mental competence (73%), and his ability to serve out another full term if reelected (76%), with a smaller 68% majority seriously concerned about his ability to understand the next generation’s concerns (that stands at 72% among those younger than 65, but just 57% of those 65 or older feel the same).
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CNN’s Arlette Saenz contributed to this report.