(CNN)Former Vice President Joe Biden and President Donald Trump went head-to-head in the mighty swing state of Florida on Thursday, as the US crossed a daily record with more than 888,000 new coronavirus cases and the two candidates showed their sharply divergent approaches to the virus at dueling rallies.
At a socially distant drive-in rally in South Florida’s Broward County — where Biden thanked attendees for wearing masks and staying six feet apart — the former vice president called on Floridians to change the course of the pandemic and choose “science over fiction,” by using their state to block Trump’s path to reelection.
“The heart and soul of this country’s at stake right in Florida. It’s up to you. You hold the key,” Biden told a diverse group of voters. “If Florida goes blue, it’s over. It’s over.”
Biden’s visit to Trump’s adopted home state was the latest example of his bid to expand the electoral map in the campaign’s final stretch by spending ample time in states that Trump won in 2016, as his team contemplates multiple paths to the 270 electoral votes he needs to win.
The two candidates will cross paths again on Friday when they both campaign in Wisconsin and Minnesota, as Biden tries to shore up his leads in those Midwestern states and connect with the blue-collar voters that Hillary Clinton neglected in the waning days of her race with Trump four years ago.
If Biden is not able to flip the battlegrounds of Florida and North Carolina, he could potentially carve a path to the White House by rebuilding the Democrats’ blue wall in the Rust Belt and capturing Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania, while holding Minnesota in the Democratic column.
Trump won those three Midwestern states by less than a percentage point in 2016, and Biden’s kinship with the blue collar voters who live in working class towns like Scranton, Pennsylvania, where he lived as a young boy, was one of the major selling points to Democratic primary voters as he cultivated the image of “middle-class Joe.”
While Trump has campaigned, both in 2016 and 2020, as a voice for the “forgotten men and women” who live in those communities, Biden has argued that the President ignored their needs while helping his wealthy allies — attempting to frame the race as Scranton versus Park Avenue. But Trump has argued that Biden favored trade policies that sent jobs overseas and threw open the border to the detriment of working-class voters.
A key facet of Biden’s success in 2020, however, is that he has cut into Trump’s margins with White voters who do not hold a college degree — a trend he hopes to accelerate in the closing days of the campaign as he tends to those key Midwestern states.
Trump, who won Florida with just over 100,000 votes in that campaign against Clinton, rejected the possibility of a loss in his backyard, arguing this week that electing Biden would lead to a national lockdown and subsequent economic collapse because of his more conservative approach to the virus.
At a time when he is trailing Biden in the polls and there is scant evidence that the race is tightening, with Democrats poised to gain seats in the House and Senate, Trump predicted the US would see “the greatest red wave” in history on Tuesday.
“Five days from now we are going to win Florida and we are going to win four more years in the White House,” Trump said during the Tampa rally where he appeared with his wife, first lady Melania Trump.
The road to 270
No swing state looms larger than Florida, prized for its 29 electoral votes and its role as a national barometer. Trump’s path to reelection is virtually impossible without a win there. Biden’s visit Thursday was preceded by events in recent days featuring former President Barack Obama, who won the state twice. And vice presidential nominee Kamala Harris will campaign Saturday in Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach counties to try to get voters out to the polls on the final weekend of early voting.
At a time when millions of voters have already cast their ballots in Florida, the Biden campaign dispatched the former vice president to stoke turnout in the reliable Democratic stronghold of Broward County, then rally voters with a bullhorn at a voter activation center in Fort Lauderdale, finishing the day in the critical swing corridor of Tampa, where the President had stopped just hours before.
Though Biden had to cut his final rally in Tampa short because of a downpour, he tried to push back throughout the day on the President’s false claims about rampant voter fraud and what he views as Trump’s efforts to suppress the vote, particularly in Black and Brown communities.
“He knows if you vote, he can’t win. He knows when America votes, they reject people like him,” Biden said in Coconut Creek Thursday morning. “We choose hope over fear. We choose unity over division, and we choose science over fiction. And, yes, we choose truth over lies.”
Trump renewed his efforts to cut into Biden’s margins within the diverse community of Latino voters in Florida. At this late stage of the race, Biden is struggling to win over Latinos at the same level that Clinton did as Democratic allies worry that time is running out, and both candidates made their cases to voters of Cuban, Venezuelan and Puerto Rican descent on Thursday.
But for all of Trump’s optimism about a potential “red wave,” CNN’s Poll of Polls shows Biden leading Trump in Florida 49% to 46% with no margin of sampling error.
With Trump headed to Green Bay and Biden to Milwaukee on Friday, the picture looks even more grim for the President in Wisconsin, which he won by less than a percentage point in 2016 and where Biden is leading Trump by a 9-point margin in CNN’s Poll of Polls.
The President’s last minute effort in Minnesota, which Clinton won last cycle, appears to be even more of a long shot. Biden held a double-digit lead over Trump last month in the Washington Post/ABC News poll there. Biden will do a late afternoon drive-in event in St. Paul, while Trump will cap his day with an evening rally in Rochester.
Late on Thursday night, the Trump campaign put out a statement protesting the fact that attendance at the Friday rally will be limited.
“Thanks to the free speech-stifling dictates of Gov. Tim Walz and Attorney General Keith Ellison, only the first 250 people will be admitted,” the Trump campaign said in a press release. “Without question, Minnesota Democrats had hoped that the President would simply cancel the event, but he will not allow partisan politicians to deprive people of their First Amendment rights to gather peacefully to hear directly from the President of the United States.”
The two candidates are locked in a much tighter race in North Carolina, where Trump was headed Thursday night for an outdoor rally in Fayetteville, which he postponed due to high winds.
“I love you North Carolina,” Trump tweeted after the schedule change on Thursday. “Stay safe, see you on Monday!!!”
Trump mocks Biden’s coronavirus precautions
One of the perils for Trump in Florida is his sliding support among seniors, which has been driven in part by broad disapproval of his handling of the coronavirus and the fact that older voters have been disproportionately affected by Covid-19.
In spite of that vulnerability, the President downplayed the fall surge in coronavirus cases during his huge rally in Tampa — where few supporters wore masks and there was no social distancing. At one point, Trump told rallygoers: “We know the disease. We social distance. We do all of the things that you have to do. … If you get close, wear a mask.”
Yet CNN’s Maegan Vazquez and Donald Judd reported that most in Trump’s Tampa crowd were standing shoulder-to-shoulder, packed so tightly together that several attendees required medical attention due to the heat.
Trump also praised Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis for the speed with which he has reopened his state. CNN reported this week that the Republican governor traveled with Dr. Scott Atlas, Trump’s controversial pandemic adviser, throughout Florida in late August as Atlas argued for limiting Covid-19 testing mainly to people experiencing symptoms. The push by the two Trump allies to curtail the number of tests coincided with a precipitous drop in testing in Florida, according to CNN reporting, and the state is now grappling with the fall surge.
Trump on Thursday also mocked Biden for following US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines and made fun of Biden’s events where attendees are separated by circles, as well as his drive-in rallies, where voters are asked to stay by their cars to ensure proper distancing.
While boasting that his own rallies could draw tens of thousands of people — at a time when all reputable medical experts are asking Americans to avoid mass gatherings — Trump claimed that the smaller attendance prescribed by the Biden campaign is driven by a lack of enthusiasm.
“Now they try and say it’s because of Covid,” Trump said. “They say the fact that he has nobody at all show up is because of Covid. No, it’s because nobody shows up,” Trump said to laughter in Tampa. “And I think that’s the ultimate poll. And based on the numbers that we’re getting, we’re going to do really well on Tuesday.”
Biden criticized Trump’s flaunting of safety guidelines: “Donald Trump just held a superspreader event here again. He’s spreading more than just coronavirus. He’s spreading division and discord,” he said hours later in Tampa.
Earlier in Broward County, Biden chided Trump for refusing to listen to science and attributed the pain, suffering and loss of more than 225,000 Americans to Trump’s “negligence.”
“Millions of people out there are out of work, on the edge. Can’t see the light at the end of the tunnel and Donald Trump has given up,” Biden said. “Donald Trump has waved the white flag, abandoned our families and surrendered to the virus. But the American people don’t give up. We don’t give in. And we surely don’t cower, nor will I under any circumstances.”