Biden, in first Florida trip as nominee, aims to shore up Latino support

By Mark Leibovich and Katie Glueck

Joe Biden on Tuesday made his first trip to Florida as the Democratic presidential nominee, facing a tight race in the state and a challenge consolidating support among its Latino voters that he moved to address as he campaigned along the increasingly Democratic I-4 corridor.

Against a backdrop of polls that showed Biden both cutting into traditional Republican constituencies and sometimes underperforming Hillary Clinton’s 2016 showing with Latino voters in Florida, he sought to engage a broad range of voters with stops in Tampa and then in Kissimmee, where he attended a Hispanic Heritage Month event.

His campaign also unveiled a plan focused on supporting Puerto Rico. The rollout came as Biden has faced urgent calls to shore up his standing with Puerto Rican voters in Florida, a critical constituency, and he described the plan at the heritage event on Tuesday night near Orlando, in a region with a significant Puerto Rican population. He said he believed that statehood “would be the most effective means of ensuring that residents of Puerto Rico are treated equally, with equal representation at a federal level.”

“But the people of Puerto Rico must decide, and the United States federal government must respect and act on that decision,” Biden went on.

The plan also called for accelerated access to reconstruction funding, investments in Puerto Rican infrastructure after devastating hurricanes, expanded health care and nutrition assistance, and efforts to “reduce its unsustainable debt burden,” among other proposals.

Throughout his remarks, Biden toggled between celebrating Hispanic Americans and the diversity of the nation, and lashing President Donald Trump’s messaging and policies toward Puerto Rico, casting that approach as callous toward U.S. citizens.

“Donald Trump doesn’t seem to grasp, doesn’t seem to grasp, that the people of Puerto Rico are American citizens already,” Biden said. Jabbing at the president’s actions after Hurricane Mariain 2017, he continued, “I’m not going to throw paper towels at people whose lives have just been devastated by a hurricane.”

The event’s participants included actress Eva Longoria and singers Ricky Martin and later Luis Fonsi, who, as they spoke from behind socially distanced podiums, urged viewers to vote.

In a nod to Fonsi’s song “Despacito,” Biden played a few strains of the hit — apparently from his phone — and bobbed briefly to the beat before launching into his remarks.

“Donald Trump has done nothing but assault the dignity of Hispanic families over and over and over and over again,” Biden said. “It’s wrong. That’s not who we are.”

Earlier, in Tampa, Biden made a concerted appeal to veterans and other Americans with ties to the military, as he denounced Trump over a report in The Atlantic that said Trump had referred to American soldiers killed in combat as “losers” and “suckers.” The president denies the report.

“Nowhere are his faults more glaring and more offensive, to me at least, than when it comes to his denigration of our service members, veterans, wounded warriors,” Biden said.

His remarks came as a new poll from Monmouth University found that Trump maintained only a small edge over Biden with voters from military and veteran households in Florida — typically a staunchly Republican constituency. The poll also found Biden ahead of Trump by 58% to 32% among Latino voters, though other surveys have suggested a much narrower race, to the alarm of some Democrats.

“The Hispanic community, Latino community, holds in the palm of their hand the destiny of this country,” Biden said Tuesday night in Kissimmee. “You may not want to hear it, but it’s true. It’s true. You can decide the direction of this country.”

At another point, he said plainly, “I’m asking for your vote.”

Earlier Tuesday, competing clusters of Trump and Biden supporters stood outside the Tampa event, near the entrance to Hillsborough Community College, where Biden spoke. Each candidate’s groups included supporters wearing “Latinos for Trump” clothing or holding “Latinos for Biden” signs, underscoring the importance of the constituency in this diverse and fiercely contested battleground.

While Trump’s contingent outnumbered Biden’s by about two to one, supporters of the former vice president managed to assemble a loud, honking caravan — about a dozen cars strong — that included a sound truck blaring an assortment of “Viva Biden” messages.

Mercedes Figueruell, a Cuban-American Trump supporter, was not swayed.

“Listen, he’s a jerk and says things that I don’t like and don’t approve of,” she said of the president whom she plans to support.

But she expressed concern that more Democrats seemed to have grown accepting of socialism.

Supporters on both sides are quick to point out that “Latino voters” are hardly a monolithic group.

On Tuesday, there was a wide variance in political views across age, class, geography and country of origin. Four people interviewed said that they were former Republicans and that Trump had scared them out of the party, largely over immigration policies that they described as cruel. Likewise, two supporters of Trump said they used to be Democrats, but now liked the incumbent — mainly because of what one called his “no-nonsense” approach to immigration.

“For most Latino voters, health care and the economy are more important than immigration,” said Marco Delgado of Tampa, who voted twice for George W. Bush and plans to support Biden. He also mentioned Trump’s response to the coronavirus crisis as a big factor in considering how to vote.

“You ask him about COVID-19 and he gives you an answer about the stock market,” Delgado said. “To me that says all you need to know, no matter where you come from.”

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