Joe Biden Florida
Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden speaks during a drive-in campaign rally at the Florida State Fairgrounds on October 29, 2020 in Tampa, Florida. Biden is campaigning in Florida on Thursday, with drive-in rallies in Tampa and Broward County. Image Credit: AFP

Tampa, Florida: That old political heartbreaker, the presidential battleground of Florida, lured the two White House contenders to the same city on Thursday, as President Donald Trump and Joe Biden confronted some of their biggest political vulnerabilities in a state that is once again shaping up as the most elusive prize in next week’s election.

Trump returned to one of the tougher parts of the state for him four years ago, Tampa, one of the few areas he lost to Hillary Clinton in the vote-rich I-4 corridor. Now behind in the polls, the president sought again to win over independents and moderates with a message about corrupt Democrats, an attack that he has had difficulty making stick against the former vice-president.

Biden, in turn, faces an increasingly urgent need to build up his margins with Latinos, a diverse demographic in Florida that he has struggled to broadly galvanise so far. He made a blunt appeal to Cuban Americans and Venezuelan Americans, reminding them of human rights abuses in Havana and Caracas.

Political fortunes tied to state

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

As with Trump, it was unclear if Biden’s message would resonate with enough voters to help ensure a winning coalition. But the former vice president acknowledged 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 swung through an outdoor campaign office in Fort Lauderdale earlier in the day.

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

Donald Trump
President Donald Trump gestures during a campaign rally Thursday, Oct. 29, 2020, in Tampa, Fla. Image Credit: AP

Speaking on a rainy night in Tampa, Biden noted that the death toll from the virus in Florida stands at more than 16,000 as he laced into the president for what he called the bungled response to the coronavirus. He condemned the president for holding what he called a “superspreader event” in Tampa earlier in the day

The release of a report on Thursday showing record-breaking growth of the gross domestic product during the third quarter might have offered Trump an opening to campaign on a rare piece of good news during the final stretch of the general election. But he spent only about five minutes on the economy, calling the GDP number the “biggest” business story of the last 50 years.

He quickly moved on to attack his perceived enemies, including Biden and the news media, and even mocked some of his fellow Republicans.

Presumed early advantage

Throughout the fall, Democrats have outpaced Republicans in voting by mail, giving Biden a presumed early advantage. But Republicans are catching up with in-person early voting, narrowing the margin with each day. Depending on how many Democrats vote over the final weekend, traditionally a time when big crowds head to the polls, the margin could be close at the start of Election Day, when Republicans usually vote in larger numbers.

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

“When you vote the way the Republicans do, you can’t predict the winner, and the reason you can’t do that is too many Republicans wait to vote the final day,” said Ryan D. Tyson, a Florida Republican pollster and strategist. “Based on what I’m looking at, at what’s remaining, I feel the president is well positioned to finish Florida strongly. And that’s not news: It’s kind of gelling as it always has been.”

There appears to be little doubt that Hillsborough County, home to Tampa and once considered perhaps the ultimate bellwether in the ultimate swing state, will go blue this year. But Biden is aiming to run up his margins with Democrats while also seeking to win over voters in nearby Pinellas County, home to St. Petersburg, which supported former President Barack Obama before flipping to Trump in 2016.

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

Light travel schedule

Amid the pandemic, Biden has pursued a relatively light travel schedule, and his team has been cautious about campaigning in person. Townsend has raised concerns in the past about the former vice-president’s visibility in her part of the state, but on Thursday she said she was seeing signs of traction for Biden on the ground, including among moderate Republicans who are disillusioned with Trump.

“Anecdotally, I’ve heard from a lot of Republicans that they voted for Biden at the top of the ticket,” she said, while adding that she still expected the state to be close. “We’re a less-than-1-percent state.”

At his rally outside Raymond James Stadium, Trump brushed past a political gift horse, the new GDP numbers released 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 harping on the overseas business dealings of Biden’s son Hunter.

“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, his voice hoarse. “’You shouldn’t be saying those things about Biden because nobody cares.’ I disagree. You know, maybe that’s why I’m here and they’re not.”

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

“I came here and all the Biden signs had been thrown on the ground,” said David Reddy, 70, who held a lone Biden sign as he waved at passersby from his lawn chair, describing himself as a poll greeter. Asked how he was feeling about Biden’s standing, he replied that it depended on the time of day.

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