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Trump, Biden converge in Florida, elusive prize still up for grabs

TAMPA, Florida – This old political heartbreaker, Florida’s presidential battlefield, drew the two White House candidates to the same city on Thursday, as President Trump and Joseph R. Biden Jr. faced some of their greatest political vulnerabilities in a state that is once again becoming the most elusive prize in next week’s election.

Mr Trump returned to one of the most difficult parts of the state for him four years ago, Tampa, one of the few areas he lost to Hillary Clinton in the wealthy I-4 corridor. voice. Now behind in the polls, the president again sought to convince independents and moderates with a message about corrupt Democrats, an attack he struggled to stick against the former vice president.

Mr Biden, in turn, faces an increasingly urgent need to strengthen his margins with Latinos, a diverse demographic in Florida that he has struggled to widely galvanize so far. He made an outspoken appeal to Cuban Americans and Americans in Venezuela, reminding them of human rights violations in Havana and Caracas.

The rare convergence of the two men on the same day – with Mr Biden appearing at a drive-through rally Thursday night in Tampa – was one of the clearest signs to date that the two candidates not only see their political fortunes tied to state, but are also far from convinced that they are ahead here. Although Mr. Biden has gained ground with older voters who were once part of Mr. Trump’s base, the president is immensely popular with the conservative Republican electorate in Florida.

As with Mr. Trump, it was not clear whether Mr. Biden’s message would resonate with enough voters to help ensure a winning coalition. But the former vice president recognized the unique role Florida would play in determining the winner. “If we win Florida, it’s game time, it’s over, it’s over,” Biden said as he walked through an outdoor campaign office in Fort Lauderdale earlier in the day.

Mr Biden made the president’s handling of the coronavirus the centerpiece of his case for Mr Trump’s removal from office, and he again pressured that message on Thursday to voters who continue to suffer from the ravages of the epidemic. The virus has cost Florida’s tourism-dependent economy hundreds of thousands of service jobs, and the disease appears to be on the verge of another peak, with the state reporting more than 4,000 new cases for three consecutive days this week.

Speaking on a rainy night in Tampa, Mr Biden noted that the death toll from the virus in Florida stood at more than 16,000 as he mingled with the president in what he called the failed response to the coronavirus. He condemned the president for hosting what he called a “big-ticket event” in Tampa earlier today.

The release of a report Thursday showing record growth in gross domestic product in the third quarter could have given Mr. Trump a campaign opening on rare good news in the home stretch of the general election. But he spent only about five minutes on the economy, calling the GDP figure the “biggest” trade story in the past 50 years.

He quickly attacked his suspected enemies, including Mr. Biden and the media, and even made fun of some of his fellow Republicans.

Florida has so many moving political parties that a candidate’s gains with one group are often outweighed by challenges with another. So while polls indicate Mr. Biden does well with older voters and non-Cuban Hispanics, such as Puerto Ricans, Dominicans and Mexicans, Mr. Trump, already strong with white working-class Floridians , has improved its position with Cuban voters. descent.

“As long as we don’t really mobilize this vote, we’re still a little uncomfortable,” said State Senator Janet Cruz, Democrat of the Tampa area, referring to the Hispanic vote at large.

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Mr Biden, appearing in the afternoon in Broward County, a Democratic stronghold, delivered a bespoke message meant to motivate Latinos.

“President Trump cannot advance democracy and human rights for the Cuban people or the Venezuelan people, for that matter, when he praised so many autocrats around the world,” a- he declared.

Throughout the fall, Democrats edged Republicans in postal voting, giving Mr Biden a presumed early advantage. But Republicans are catching up with early voting in person, shrinking the margin every day. Depending on the number of Democrats voting last weekend, which is traditionally a time when large crowds go to the polls, the margin could be narrow at the start of Election Day, when Republicans typically vote in greater numbers.

Turnout has been the highest so far in some of the state’s most Republican counties, and the Republican Party, which has controlled state government for more than two decades, is known for its disciplined campaigns. on the ballot.

“When you vote like Republicans do, you can’t predict the winner, and the reason you can’t is because too many Republicans are waiting to vote on the last day,” said Ryan D. Tyson, a Florida Republican pollster and strategist. “Based on what I’m looking at, what’s left, I think the president is in a good position to end Florida on a high. And that’s not news: it’s a bit gelling like it always has been.

There seems little doubt that Hillsborough County, home to Tampa and once considered perhaps the best indicator of ultimate swing state, will turn blue this year. But Mr Biden is aiming to increase his margins with Democrats while also seeking to convince voters in neighboring Pinellas County, where St. Petersburg is located, which backed former President Barack Obama before moving on to Mr Trump in 2016.

“We all know if we sweep the I-4 hallway we’re going to win this thing,” said Ione Townsend, the Hillsborough County Democratic Party chairperson.

Amid the pandemic, Mr Biden followed a relatively light travel schedule and his team were cautious when campaigning in person. Ms Townsend has raised concerns in the past about the visibility of the former vice president in her part of the state, but on Thursday she said she saw signs of traction for Mr Biden on the pitch, including included among moderate Republicans who are disappointed with Mr. Trump.

“Anecdotally, I heard a lot of Republicans say they voted for Biden at the top of the ticket,” she said, while adding that she still expected the state to be close. “We are a less than 1% state.”

During his rally outside Raymond James Stadium, Mr. Trump walked past a political giveaway horse, the new GDP figures released on Thursday. Instead, he chided Republicans who have repeatedly advised him to focus on his economic record, which voters see as his greatest remaining strength, and to refrain from talking about foreign trade relations. from Mr. Biden’s son, Hunter.

“I get a call from all the experts, okay, guys who’ve run for president six, seven, eight times – never made it past the first round – but they’re calling me, ‘Sir, you shouldn’t be talking about Hunter, ”he said huskily. “’You shouldn’t say these things about Biden because nobody cares.’ I do not agree. You know, maybe that’s why I’m here and they’re not.

As Mr. Trump prepared to appear in Tampa, signs of Mr. Biden’s challenges in that state were on display outside.

“I came here and all the Biden signs were thrown to the ground,” said David Reddy, 70, who held a lone Biden sign as he waved passers-by from his lawn chair, describing himself as a poll host. Asked how he felt about Mr Biden’s position, he replied that it depended on the time of day.

“Sometimes I’m very optimistic,” he says. “Sometimes not.”

There was no such ambivalence among forceful Trump supporters who hoped to see the president – “Woo-Hoo! Four more years, baby! a woman screamed out of her car window. But it’s not just rally fans who have made their allegiances clear.

“Hey! Biden! He’s an old Communist!” A man yelled as he walked past, repeating a bogus message that Republicans pressed while wooing some Latino voters.

“Damn, he’s right!” shouted another man from the sidewalk.

Across the street from Mr. Reddy, three black men who worked at the event briefly stood under a tree, at odds over the election.

David Norwood, 60, and Leon Lillie, 67, both from the Tampa area, said they voted for Mr Biden, citing his experience and opinions on issues such as social security and care health. A third colleague, who declined to give his name, said he would not vote for any of the candidates, saying he didn’t think much would change for black Americans regardless of the next president.

Up the street across the arena, 22-year-old Shermaine Hicks stood outside her workplace and said she came to a similar conclusion. She voted for Hillary Clinton in 2016, she said, but would not vote for any of the candidates this year. She said she liked Mr. Trump to “say what he thought,” but she feared he had encouraged racists.

Still, she also said she felt Mr. Biden indulged in black Americans like herself – and she hinted at false conspiracy theories she said she heard from him. She knows they’re not real, she said, but added that she “heard too many bad things”.

“I’m staying out of the mix this year,” she said.

Katie Glueck reported from Tampa, Florida, and Patricia Mazzei from Miami. Glenn Thrush has contributed reporting for Washington and Sydney Ember from Fairfield, Conn.

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