Biden and Trump go on the attack in Florida, a must-win state for the president

Evan Halper, Eli Stokols, Melissa Gomez
·8 min read
Democratic presidential candidate former Vice President Joe Biden speaks at a drive-in rally at the Florida State Fairgrounds, Thursday, Oct. 29, 2020, in Tampa, Fla. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)
Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden speaks at a drive-in rally at the Florida state fairgrounds on Thursday in Tampa. (Andrew Harnik / Associated Press)

The presidential candidates unleashed a frenzy of last-minute campaigning Thursday in Florida, a must-win state for President Trump, whose packed rallies have become their own political liability amid surging coronavirus cases.

Both Trump and Democratic nominee Joe Biden headed to the rapidly growing Tampa region, where their get-out-the-vote events showcased sharply contrasting approaches to the COVID-19 pandemic. The focus on Florida comes as polls give Biden a slight edge in the state, which holds 29 electoral votes the Trump campaign desperately needs for a viable path to victory.

“Joe Biden’s plan is to deliver punishing lockdowns,” Trump said before thousands of supporters standing close together and mostly without masks as Trump lobbed attacks the Biden campaign says are baseless. “He’s going to lock you down.”

“We’re never going to lock down,” Trump said, disregarding the warnings of public health officials as the pandemic comes raging back in Florida, where COVID-19 has killed more than 16,500 people and the number of new infections has increased 47% during the last two weeks. “We locked down. We understood the disease, and now we are open for business.”

Trump believes his rallies were key to his 2016 victory and to the possibility of a repeat. Polls, however, indicate his approach to the virus, which many voters see as cavalier, has become a damaging turnoff. Since June, Trump has held six major rallies in Florida, with crowds as big as 15,000.

Asked about the rallies, 59% of voters nationwide said they disapproved of Trump holding them during the pandemic, while 64% approved of Biden's decision not to hold large rallies, according to a new Suffolk University poll for USA Today.

By the time the candidates arrived in Florida on Thursday, more than 7.3 million voters in the state had already cast ballots. Democrats outnumber Republicans so far in those early ballots, a major shift from past elections, when Republicans dominated the early vote in Florida. Trump's unsubstantiated claims that mail-in voting is insecure appear to have pushed substantial numbers of GOP voters to avoid it.

As Trump steps up the frequency of his travel, Biden continues to lead in the main battlegrounds despite his limited travel and deliberately sparse crowds.

Polls released Thursday showed Biden up 3 to 6 percentage points in Florida.

The state is important to Democrats not just for its large number of electoral votes but also because it counts its mail-in votes earlier than many other battlegrounds, so its outcome probably will be known Tuesday night. A Biden victory here would limit the ability of Trump to claim victory on the basis of election day votes that may favor him in states such as Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. The president has suggested that he may try to ignore results tallied after election day if they are not beneficial to him.

Before Biden’s evening event in Tampa, he addressed a drive-in rally at Broward College, north of Fort Lauderdale, where attendees were encouraged to stay in their cars. Only 201 cars were permitted at the venue. Supporters sat on the hoods of their vehicles in the 90-degree heat.

“We decided a while ago we were going to be responsible,” Biden said as he took the stage, apologizing for the restrictions and his inability to shake hands with supporters.

By contrast, he said, referring to Trump: “He is spreading more virus around the country and here in Florida today."

“If Florida goes blue, it’s over,” Biden told supporters, who honked their horns.

At the slightly larger Tampa event Thursday evening, Biden took aim at Trump's charge that the former vice president would shut down the economy.

"I'm not going to shut down the economy," Biden said at the state fairgrounds, where about 100 vehicles were turned away after the venue hit capacity. "I'm not going to shut down the country. I'm going to shut down the virus."

Biden pilloried Trump for the White House management of the pandemic and refusal to take responsibility for soaring infection rates. He warned about Trump’s efforts to dismantle Obamacare at both events, and he made a pitch at the Fort Lauderdale-area rally to the state’s Cuban Americans, who heavily favor Trump, and Venezuelan Americans, many of whom have moved in Trump's direction.

Biden argued that the president’s policies have done nothing to bring democracy and freedom to Cuba or to displace the Venezuelan government of Nicolás Maduro and have only strengthened Russia’s hand.

“Trump loves to talk, but he doesn’t care about Cuban and Venezuelan people,” Biden said.

Back in Tampa, Trump played to form, repeatedly meandering off script. He berated the media, branded as fake the polls that show him behind in Florida and took aim at several of his personal enemies, including the former administration official who this week revealed himself as the author of damning insider accounts of chaos in the Oval Office under the pen name Anonymous. Trump called for the man, former Homeland Security official Miles Taylor, to be prosecuted.

Trump insisted he would not take advice from other Republicans who have told him to focus more on the economy.

“I get a call from all the experts, right, guys that ran for president six, seven, eight times, never got past the first round, but they’re calling me up. ‘Sir, you shouldn’t be speaking about Hunter,’” he said, referring to Biden's son. “‘You shouldn’t be saying bad things about Biden because nobody cares.’ I disagree. You know, maybe that’s why I’m here and they’re not.

“But they say, ‘Talk about your economic success. Talk about 33.1%, the greatest in history,’" he said, referring to the economic growth rate in the third quarter. "Now, look, if I do, I mean, how many times can I say it?”

While polls suggest Trump’s approach to the virus is hurting his chances in Florida, many of the president’s most vocal supporters here are in alignment with him.

“I understand it’s a deadly virus, but I think it’s getting blown out of proportion,” said Bruce Clark, a 57-year-old man with asthma who said he did not feel he was taking a risk by attending Trump’s rally. “We can’t stop living.”

“Unfortunately I think eventually all of us are going to get it,” said Clark, who said his 88-year-old mother contracted the virus at a nursing home but was asymptomatic.

Trump had planned to follow the Tampa event with an evening rally in Fayetteville, N.C., a state Trump won in 2016 but which is now a toss-up. The Trump campaign called off the rally, however, citing bad weather.

The Tampa region is something of a bellwether for battleground districts nationwide. It is a popular retirement destination for natives of the swing states in the industrial Midwest. It is also full of rapidly growing neighborhoods with diverse young families, reflecting the shifting demographics of Sun Belt suburbs that are reshaping the political map in Florida and beyond.

Biden is polling particularly strongly in the area as older voters who supported Trump in 2016 migrate toward the Democrat amid concerns about the virus and GOP plans to dismantle Obamacare. Those gains for Democrats have been offset by Trump’s stronger showing in the Miami region as he consolidates support among Cuban Americans and other voters responsive to the president’s anti-socialist messages.

Even so, the president’s opponents are increasingly confident that Florida, which was crucial to Trump’s 2016 victory, is slipping away from him.

"Trump is fading away in Florida," said Mike Murphy, the longtime Republican strategist who has been working with the group Republican Voters Against Trump. Their polling has Trump 6 points behind Biden, he said.

Trump’s lack of money to spend in Florida compared with the resources going to support Biden may be factoring into the edge the former vice president appears to have in the closing days of the race.

The Biden campaign’s own considerable spending has been bolstered by Democratic billionaire Michael R. Bloomberg, who has pledged to spend $100 million in the state, and by other anti-Trump groups such as the Republican Voters organization. Biden and his allies have spent more than twice as much on advertising in Florida this month as Trump and groups supporting him, according to the ad tracking firm Advertising Analytics.

On Thursday, the Bloomberg group Independence USA released yet another anti-Trump ad that calls attention to the president’s downplaying of the virus as the death toll mounted.

Financially, Murphy said, "Trump is in real trouble."

Halper reported from Washington, and Stokols and Gomez from Tampa. Times staff writer David Lauter in Washington contributed to this report.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.