TAMPA — As vice president, Joe Biden leaned in to the goofy "Uncle Joe" caricature of memes and satirical news stories. He wore aviators for the cameras while eating ice cream, and pointed and grinned behind President Barack Obama during nationally televised speeches.

But at a Democratic campaign rally Monday at the University of South Florida, the audience saw a different side of Biden. "Listen," he said over and over when the crowd wanted to laugh or cheer. "This is not a joke."

"I think there's something different about this election," Biden said. "This election is bigger than politics. For real. This goes well beyond."

This is the message Democrats in Florida led with on the first day of early voting in one of the key battleground states of these midterms, and they enlisted one of the party's most recognizable national figures to deliver it.

"American values are being shredded" by President Donald Trump, Biden asserted, and Florida is needed to lead the Democratic counter punch. "After Charlottesville, I could not be silent anymore. We're in the battle for the soul of America."

OCTAVIO JONES | TimesFormer Vice-President Joe Biden, center, hugs U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson while Florida Gubernatorial Democratic candidate Andrew Gillum looks on during the Florida Democratic Party rally held at the University of South Florida in Tampa, Florida on Monday, October 22, 2018.
OCTAVIO JONES | TimesFormer Vice-President Joe Biden, center, hugs U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson while Florida Gubernatorial Democratic candidate Andrew Gillum looks on during the Florida Democratic Party rally held at the University of South Florida in Tampa, Florida on Monday, October 22, 2018.

Biden kicked off a two-day trip to the Sunshine State in Tampa with Tallahassee mayor and gubernatorial candidate Andrew Gillum and Sen. Bill Nelson. Two years after Trump took Florida by just 1.2 percentage points, the two Democrats are running neck-and-neck in their closely watched races.

Now 75, Biden is the biggest name to come through the area since late July, when Trump campaigned for Gillum's rival, Republican gubernatorial candidate Ron DeSantis. Biden will remain in the Interstate 4 corridor on Tuesday to campaign with Nelson in Orlando, once again affirming the region's importance in statewide elections.

Speaking to a crowd of about 1,500 in a USF gym, Biden promised immediate change in Florida if voters put Democrats in charge of the state for the first time in 20 years.

Environmental officials will be allowed to say "climate change" again and Medicaid expansion will bring health care to 800,000 poor Floridians, Biden said, alluding to two flashpoints of Republican Gov. Rick Scott's administration.

"Andrew will change that overnight," Biden said.

OCTAVIO JONES | TimesFlorida Gubernatorial Democratic candidate Andrew Gillum takes selfies with the crowd after giving a speech during the Florida Democratic Party rally held at the University of South Florida in Tampa, Florida on Monday, October 22, 2018.
OCTAVIO JONES | TimesFlorida Gubernatorial Democratic candidate Andrew Gillum takes selfies with the crowd after giving a speech during the Florida Democratic Party rally held at the University of South Florida in Tampa, Florida on Monday, October 22, 2018.

Before Biden took the stage, Gillum fired up the audience with the kind of hopeful message that former President Barack Obama used to win the state in 2008 and 2012. He told the college students in the audience: "I want you to follow your dreams."

"I want to be the kind of state where you don't have to be on the first plane out of here," said Gillum, fresh off Sunday night's debate with DeSantis. "I want you to be able to choose to build your life right here in the state of Florida."

It's a message that resonated with Acree Trivett, a 21-year-old USF student from Daytona Beach. Trivett, a LGBTQ woman, said she has often considered leaving the state after graduating because of its conservative record on gay issues.

"I want to live in the state I was born in," she said. "I don't always know if I can do that."

There is a strong sense among Democrats that Gillum has brought an excitement to the ticket that will lure voters who traditionally skip mid-term elections. Polls have consistently shown him slightly ahead of DeSantis and often outperforming Nelson, who is in a tight race against Scott.

OCTAVIO JONES | TimesA packed gymnasium watches Florida Gubernatorial Democratic candidate Andrew Gillum give his speech during the Florida Democratic Party rally held at the University of South Florida in Tampa, Florida on Monday, October 22, 2018.
OCTAVIO JONES | TimesA packed gymnasium watches Florida Gubernatorial Democratic candidate Andrew Gillum give his speech during the Florida Democratic Party rally held at the University of South Florida in Tampa, Florida on Monday, October 22, 2018.

Monday's rally, while celebrating the entire ticket, certainly had the flair of a Gillum event. Gillum signs easily outnumberd those for Nelson. Nelson, 76, is the more senior official, but he introduced Gillum, 39. Audience members strained and held up phones to capture Gillum's speech on video.

And there was a noticeable difference in how the lineup of Democratic speakers talked about Gillum versus Nelson.

"I have seen excitement before, but let me tell you, this man is on fire," House Minority Leader Janet Cruz said of Gillum. "This man is going to change Florida forever."

Whether that translates into turnout is still to be determined. Republicans have built up a substantial lead in voting by mail so far, with more than 411,000 GOP voters returning their ballots compared to about 359,000 Democrats, 161,000 independent voters and 5,000 who belong to minor parties.

Early voting began Monday in 31 of the state's 67 counties. They included Pinellas, Hillsborough, Miami-Dade and Broward, and eight of the state's 10 most populous counties. Early voting will be underway in all 67 counties by Saturday, Oct. 27.

Most counties had not yet reported their first-day early voting totals early Monday night. But election web sites reported no long lines at voting locations. Early voting has traditionally been more popular with Democrats than Republicans.

Scott's campaign poked fun at Nelson's slot as a warm up-act for Gillum despite being atop the ticket.

OCTAVIO JONES | TimesU.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, right, blows a kiss before giving a speech during the Florida Democratic Party rally held at the University of South Florida in Tampa, Florida on Monday, October 22, 2018.
OCTAVIO JONES | TimesU.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, right, blows a kiss before giving a speech during the Florida Democratic Party rally held at the University of South Florida in Tampa, Florida on Monday, October 22, 2018.

"In the closing weeks of this campaign, liberal Andrew Gillum is calling in the cavalry of liberal Washington politicians to prop up his campaign," Scott spokesman Chris Hartline said. "Oh, and Bill Nelson was there too."

Biden acknowledged Gillum presented a unique opportunity for Florida voters to elect the state's first black governor.

It was an opportunity he said he never thought possible until he was sworn in alongside Obama.

"Don't tell me that things cant change. Don't tell me that won't happen," Biden said. "It's time. It's time. It's time."

OCTAVIO JONES | TimesA packed gymnasium watches Florida Gubernatorial Democratic candidate Andrew Gillum give his speech during the Florida Democratic Party rally held at the University of South Florida in Tampa, Florida on Monday, October 22, 2018.
OCTAVIO JONES | TimesA packed gymnasium watches Florida Gubernatorial Democratic candidate Andrew Gillum give his speech during the Florida Democratic Party rally held at the University of South Florida in Tampa, Florida on Monday, October 22, 2018.

Times/Herald Tallahassee Bureau staff writer Steve Bousquet contributed to this report. Contact Steve Contorno at [email protected]