• The Star Staff

Virus surge shadows Trump and Biden campaign events after final debate

By Shane Goldmacher, Thomas Kaplan and Annie Karni

A day after the nation hit a new high for coronavirus cases, President Donald Trump returned to the campaign trail for a series of rallies and again sought to minimize the surging pandemic, mocking his rival, Joe Biden, for following the social distancing recommendations of public health officials.

In the face of spiking numbers, Trump on Saturday continued to lean into the idea that the news media and his critics were obsessing about the virus, even as polls show widespread public concern. A recent New York Times/Siena College poll found that a slim majority of voters (including half of independents) believed the worst of the pandemic was yet to come.

“That’s all I hear about now. That’s all I hear, turn on television,” Trump said at a campaign event in Lumberton, North Carolina. “COVID, COVID, COVID, COVID, COVID, COVID,” a refrain he recited in the state as well on Wednesday.

With 10 days left until the election and hundreds of thousands of voters expected to cast their ballots as long lines marked the first weekend of early in-person voting in Florida, New York, Wisconsin and other states, Trump and Biden presented sharply divergent cases, both in words and actions, for how they would handle the virus crisis still gripping the country.

Making two stops in the key battleground of Pennsylvania, Biden cited the milestone in cases and criticized Trump for asserting that the country was “rounding the corner” as cases spiked.

“You’re asking us to learn how to die with it, and it’s wrong,” Biden said at a drive-in rally in the Philadelphia suburbs, recalling his exchange with Trump on the subject at the debate Thursday. He added that there was “going to be a dark winter ahead unless we change our ways.”

The beeping of car horns punctuated his remarks, a familiar soundtrack at his socially distanced drive-in events in the weeks before Election Day. “I wish I could go car to car and meet you all,” Biden said at a community college in Bucks County, where he spoke from a stage decorated with pumpkins and bales of hay. “I don’t like the idea of all this distance, but it’s necessary. I appreciate you being safe. What we don’t want to do is become superspreaders.”

In North Carolina, it seemed that Trump had watched his rival’s event, mocking Biden for his careful crowd limits. “People in cars,” Trump said. “I don’t get it.”

“You heard a couple of horns,” he added. “Honk, honk. It’s the weirdest thing.”

From there, Trump was off to Circleville, Ohio, outside Columbus, and then Waukesha, Wisconsin, as he sought to rally backers in suburban areas where polls show his support has slipped. On Sunday, he will fly to New Hampshire, the lone state on his weekend itinerary that he did not carry in 2016 and part of a hopscotching schedule reminiscent of his intense final push four years ago.

But the virus’ surge has ensured that even Trump’s well-attended rallies can be a political liability, a reminder to voters fearful of the pandemic of his regular disregard for expert and public health advice. Trump used his own contracting of the disease, his weekend of hospitalization and his subsequent recovery as a pitch to minimize the severity of a pandemic that has cost more than 224,000 lives in the United States out of more than 8 million cases.

“By the way, I had it, here I am,” he said.

Trump began his day in Florida, where he joined the more than 56 million Americans who have already voted. He cast his ballot in person at the Palm Beach County Main Library, declaring, “I voted for a guy named Trump.”

Afterward, he also continued to baselessly question the integrity of the election and in particular mail-in ballots. “It’s the only way we can lose,” Trump said, citing the size of crowds at his rallies. Most polls show Trump behind by a sizable margin nationally and in many of the critical battleground states.

Biden’s full day in Pennsylvania was a sign of the state’s crucial importance in his Electoral College calculations. After his rally in Bucks County, which Hillary Clinton won by less than 1 percentage point in 2016 — he flew to Luzerne County in the blue-collar northeastern part of the state, where he held a drive-in rally that included a performance by singer Jon Bon Jovi.

Luzerne County is near Biden’s hometown, Scranton, and it is a historically Democratic county that Trump flipped by a wide margin in 2016.

Still, the day had its prickly moments. In a local television interview, Biden interjected when a reporter began to ask a question about “controversy” and his son Hunter Biden. “There is no controversy about my son,” Biden said. “It’s all a lie. It’s a flat lie, because the president has nothing else to run on.”

Along with Biden’s appearances this weekend, Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., was in western Pennsylvania on Saturday, holding a get-out-the vote event in Pittsburgh and a drive-in rally with the state’s lieutenant governor, John Fetterman. And in another sign of Pennsylvania’s potential as the 2020 tipping point, the Biden campaign dispatched former President Barack Obama there this past week for his first in-person campaign trip of the general election. Obama campaigned in Florida on Saturday.

“It may come down to Pennsylvania,” Biden said in Bucks County. “And I believe in you. I believe in my state.”

For Trump, it may come down to the coronavirus. At the rally in Circleville on Saturday, along with his continuing focus on Biden’s stance on fracking and his attacks on Hunter Biden, Trump continued his efforts to redefine the virus and his own experience with it.

He played down the threat the pandemic posed, pointing to his own family’s experience as an example of why a virus that has killed more than 224,000 people in the United States is not so bad. “It worked out,” he said of his own hospitalization for the virus. “By the way, 99.9% is good and then you’re immune.”