Joe Biden ventured out in Florida Monday, holding events in Little Havana and commanding the spotlight for an hour during an NBC town-hall event in Miami. With President Trump locked down in a COVID campaign penalty box of his own making, the contrasting images from the two camps seemed like a variation on the timeless tale of the tortoise and the hare.
The polls have consistently shown Biden leading in Florida with his slow and steady and sometimes bumbling approach – while Trump was exhausting himself running around in circles revving up his base. The president has visited Florida, his newly designated home state, 12 times this year while Monday’s trip marked only the second time the Democratic nominee had traveled to the Sunshine State since early spring. The RealClealPolitics polling average has Biden leading in electoral vote-rich Florida by just two percentage points while the latest New York Times/Siena poll has Biden up by five points.
Though Trump dominated the network news airwaves Monday evening for simply leaving the hospital and returning to the White House, Biden was making his case to voters in person and assailing the president for failing to provide leadership during the pandemic.
Before the Monday trip, the Biden campaign had approached Trump’s COVID diagnosis carefully, wishing the president and first lady a speedy recovery and moving to take down negative advertising.
By Monday afternoon, however, Biden was taking the kid gloves off after Trump issued a stream of short, all-caps tweets urging his supporters to vote.
“I was glad to see the president speaking and recording videos over the weekend,” Biden said in the Little Havana neighborhood. “Now that he’s busy tweeting campaign messages, I would ask him to do this: Listen to the scientists. Support masks. Support a — mask mandates nationwide.”
Biden sounded more sure-footed than usual, rattling off well-rehearsed lines while encouraging Florida voters to send Trump packing. During an earlier stop at the Little Haiti Cultural Center, he referred to allegations in Bob Woodward’s latest book that Trump, during a 2016 campaign event in Miami, referred to Haiti as an “s-hole” country.
“Wouldn’t it be an irony, the irony of all ironies, if on election eve it turned out that Haitians delivered the coup de grace in this election?” Biden asked the crowd.
The former vice president also tried to push back against Trump ads aimed at the Cuban and Venezuelan communities in Florida depicting him as a socialist who would not stand up to dictators like Raul Castro and Nicolas Maduro.
“Maduro, who I’ve met, is a dictator, plain and simple,” Biden said. “President Trump cannot advance democracy and human rights when he has embraced so many autocrats around the world, starting with Vladimir Putin.”
Later, under the glare of a spotlight at the town-hall event, where he took questions from voters in a session moderated by NBC News anchor Lester Holt, Biden was less polished, sometimes giving meandering answers. But he remained forceful.
“There’s not one syllable I’ve ever said that could lead you to believe that I was a socialist or a communist,” Biden declared.
“Do I look like a socialist? I’m the guy who ran against the socialist,” he added, referring to Bernie Sanders, who now strongly backs him. “I’ve taken on the Castros of the world and the Putins of the world.”
Actually, Biden has made no bones about plans to return to the Obama administration policy of normalizing relations with Cuba, and never criticized his former boss’s controversial visit to the communist island nation late in his second term, when the two leaders held a joint news conference and happily watched a baseball game together. Several prominent Cuban-Americans, who tend to vote Republican, condemned the visit.
But even though Cuban-American voters could break against him, Biden defended the decision to normalize relations, arguing that Trump’s policies of reinstating most sanctions is doing nothing for the Cuban people.
“Cuba is no closer to freedom and democracy than it was four years ago,” he argued.
The town hall came nearly a week after Biden and Trump faced off in a raucous debate in Cleveland. Responding to a question from Holt, Biden said that it was “disconcerting to look out and see that [Trump’s] whole section — no one had masks on,” and he was especially concerned knowing that his wife was out there in the crowd exposed.
Briefly raising his voice, Biden got worked up just talking about it.
“What is this macho thing that ‘I’m not going to wear a mask’?” he said. “Be patriotic, for God’s sake! Take care of yourself, and take care of your neighbors.”
Biden, however, didn’t answer directly when asked whether Trump should go public with a more detailed account of his COVID treatments after conflicting accounts of the state of his health and aspects of his treatment. He argued that presidents shouldn’t have to provide “every detail” about their health scares in real-time, as long as they aren’t “misleading.”
The event’s format, with voters standing nearby, at first appeared to energize Biden, and it also allowed for much longer answers than he could get in with Trump’s constant interruptions in the debate last week. Sometimes, the longer response time got the best of him and he provided more of a windy word salad response than a clearly articulated policy.
Pressed by the wife of a police officer about his thoughts are on the “defund the police” movement, Biden said he actually wants to increase law enforcement budgets.
He didn’t have a ready response when Holt asked him why he hasn’t done more on criminal justice reform and race relations after serving for 47 years in Washington, the last eight as the vice president.
Biden had a far more powerful answer when pressed by a minority Gen Z audience member on how he could guarantee the voter’s views would be represented in a Biden administration despite their great age gap.
“With age comes wisdom, hopefully,” the former vice president said, while acknowledging that the voter’s generation is behind the eight ball with student debt and the economy still at one of the worst points since the Great Depression. He promised to eliminate student debt for many students at public universities and institute a first-time homebuyer credit.
“You’re the best educated. You’re the most open. You’re the least prejudiced generation in American history. The future is yours, and I’m counting on you.”
With many universities shut down or at limited in-person capacity, concerns are growing about turning out the youth vote. Instead of insisting that he could relate to younger voters, Biden tried to make the case that he would be a transitional candidate who empowers the next generation. It came off as refreshingly self-aware.
The one-candidate forum obviously benefited Biden, who, for the most part, was able to rattle off most his talking points without a major gaffe. And he offered a half apology for resorting to name-calling in the first debate. Asked if he regretted calling the president “a clown” and asking him to “shut up,” Biden responded in the affirmative.
“I was trying to figure out how I could possibly have him respect the debate, respect the moderator and give us the opportunity to speak,” he asserted. “He did not want to talk about substance.”
Biden also cast doubt on whether there would be another presidential debate, referring to the “supposedly coming up” second one, scheduled for Oct. 15. If it were up to him alone, he would probably avoid it – considering just how unpredictable the verbal rabbit punches can be.
In the old Aesop fable, the tortoise was confident of victory despite his slow and steady gait. The hare was energetic, but undisciplined. He was also given to taunting his rival. “Do you ever get anywhere?” the tortoise asked the hare with a mocking laugh.
“Yes,” replied the tortoise. “And I get there sooner than you think.”