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Biden greeted with chants of 'run, Joe, run!' in Pittsburgh

As 2016 speculation swirls, Vice President Joe Biden was warmly welcomed at his first major political event in months.

PITTSBURGH -- As speculation swirls about a 2016 presidential bid, Vice President Joe Biden received a hero's welcome at a Labor Day parade here Monday in his first major political outing since the death of his son earlier this summer.

Biden gave no hints about a third presidential bid, even as some of the tens of thousands of union members participating in the march encouraged him to go for it. "I plan to run part of this parade!" he joked to reporters when asked about a run. Later, he told a supporter to ask his wife about his 2016 plans.

The Vice President was full of energy as he gave a fiery speech defending organized labor from the "barbarians" he warned were "at the gate." Donning a United Steelworkers cap and taking off his jacket in the sweltering heat, the vice president credited unions for both his political career and for the rights of all workers.

“Joe Biden has been the voice of working people because he’s never forgotten where he came from,” said USW President Leo Gerard. AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka called Biden “a friend, a champion of working men and women."

The appearance of "Middle-Class Joe," as Biden likes to call himself, complete with his signature insertions of "man" and dips into an Eastern Pennsylvania drawl, stood in marked contrast to the Biden that appeared at a synagogue in Atlanta just days ago.

Related: Speculation swirls around Joe Biden’s potential presidential campaign

Then, Biden let the loss of his beloved son Beau show as he said the biggest factor weighing on a White House bid was whether he had the "emotional fuel" left in him to commit to the campaign trail.

Aides say the vice president's mourning has varied from day-to-day, though he's getting more eager to put himself back out in political area he has loved to inhabit for almost 40 years.

Blue collar Pittsburgh is Biden country and Biden darted from one side of the street to the other to shake hands and pose for pictures with admirers along the mile-long parade route. There were several rounds of chants of "Run, Joe, run!" and "We love you, Joe!" though he mostly ignored them.

Asked about the outpouring of support after the devastating loss of his son, Biden told reporters, "it's hope."

But on the sidelines, there was hardly unity about the vice president's future.

Signs endorsing Bernie Sanders’ presidential bid — sometimes at Biden’s expense — dotted the crowd lining the parade path, and supporters of the Vermont senator said they organized around 50 people to attend to get the word out on his campaign.

K.J. Hay, one of those volunteers, waved a posterboard bearing a red, white and blue message to the Vice President: “I love you, Joe, but I’m voting for Bernie.”

“I think he’s a really great guy, but I want him to know that as much as I love him, I’m voting for Bernie,” Hay said.

Other Sanders supporters were even more frank. Steelworker James Spellman said many Sanders fans "feel that Biden is pretty much Republican-lite."

He said there wasn’t much more love for Hillary Clinton among the "disenchanted” people he’s spoken to, suggesting Clinton might “drop out” due in part to the controversy surrounding her email use.

That issue seemed to shadow Clinton’s campaign even among her supporters at the parade.

Denise Schiller of Pittsburgh said she wanted to see a women president, but was concerned that Clinton had been too badly damaged by the controversy. "I really thought she would have been a great candidate. And I still hope she can be," Schiller said.

She wasn't sure about Biden though, noting his fragile state and wondering if he had "the emotional fortitude" to sustain a campaign.

Others had warmer words for Biden. Ken Goldsmith said he enjoyed seeing Biden in his element at the parade. "I don't think he can kill the Hillary machine. But to have him come out here hugging all these people and all," he said. "Hillary is so stifled, Obama is eloquent, but Biden is genuine."

That was, for those ardent Biden backers who came out to encourage him to run, perhaps their primary reason for supporting the vice president.

“Joe has a heart of gold,” said Lynn Pozzuto, a Pittsburgh resident who had been waiting on the parade line since 8:30 a.m. to see the Vice President.

Pozzuto said she's currently backing Clinton, but carried a sign that read, “Joe, we need you — we need to talk — how about lunch?” If she could sit down for a meal with Biden, Pozzuto said she’d like to share with him some of the struggles she’s faced — losing her job three times, her house and facing overwhelming debt — and felt he was the one candidate with the “compassion” to understand.

“I understand the family commitment, that would definitely come first, but that’s one of the reasons I like him so much,” she said. “I get that, and I think we need somebody in there with compassion.”