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In Florida, Biden criticizes Trump for remarks on veterans

Alexandra Jaffe and Will Weissert
Associated Press

Tampa, Fla. – Joe Biden is tearing into President Donald Trump for his reported remarks referring to fallen soldiers as “suckers” during a Tuesday campaign visit to the key battleground state of Florida.

“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 who have fallen,” Biden said at a campaign event with veterans in the Tampa area.

It marked Biden’s latest reaction on remarks, sourced anonymously and first reported in The Atlantic, describing offensive comments by the president toward fallen and captured U.S. service members, including calling World War I dead at an American military cemetery in France “losers” and “suckers” in 2018.

Trump has denied the remarks. But the reported comments, many of which were confirmed independently by The Associated Press, have given Biden an opening to press what Democrats believe may be an opening among veteran voters and military families, who broadly supported Trump in 2016.

During the Tuesday event, Biden spoke about his son Beau, who served in the Delaware National Guard and died of a brain tumor in 2015.

“He’s gone now, but he’s no sucker,” Biden said.

Biden spoke about his experience as vice president escorting military caskets home and working on military issues, and about his own commitments to strengthen the VA and tackle veterans mental health crisis. And he attacked Trump for what he said were failed promises to veterans.

Democratic presidential candidate former Vice President Joe Biden speaks after participating in a coronavirus vaccine briefing with public health experts, Wednesday, Sept. 16, 2020, in Wilmington, Del.

“President Trump likes to say he passed VA Choice, but just like everything else he seems to say, it’s a figment of his imagination or a flat-out lie,” he said, referencing a program passed under the Obama administration that steers more patients to the private sector.

The event kicked off Biden’s first trip to Florida as the Democratic presidential nominee on Tuesday. Later in the day, Biden will hold a Hispanic Heritage Month kickoff event in Kissimmee, near Orlando, as part of an urgent mission to build support among Latinos who could decide the election in one of the nation’s fiercest battleground states.

A win for Biden in Florida would dramatically narrow President Donald Trump’s path to reelection. But in a state where elections are often decided by a percentage point, there are mounting concerns that Biden may be slipping, particularly with the state’s influential Latino voters.

An NBC-Marist poll released last week found Latinos in the state about evenly divided between Biden and Trump. Democrat Hillary Clinton led Trump by a 59% to 36% margin among Latinos in the same poll in 2016 – and Trump won Florida by about 1 percentage point.

Hispanic voters in Florida tend to be somewhat more Republican-leaning than Hispanic voters nationwide because of the state’s Cuban American population. Nationally, little public polling is available to measure the opinions of Latino voters this year and whether they differ from four years ago.

Biden’s trip suggests he isn’t taking chances in Florida. He’s spending his day along the I-4 corridor, which is often where campaigns are won or lost. While Republicans typically post big numbers in the northern and southwestern parts of the state and Democrats are strong in coastal cities, campaigns typically battle it out for every vote along in central Florida.

Biden’s decision to celebrate Hispanic Heritage Month in Kissimmee reflects a focus on the state’s rapidly growing Puerto Rican community, many of whom relocated to Florida after Hurricane Maria devastated the island in 2017.

They may be more open to Biden than Cuban Americans concentrated in Miami, who are attuned to Trump’s false message that the Democratic ticket would embrace socialism.

Biden has repeatedly criticized Trump for the slow federal response to the hurricane and made a point of mentioning Puerto Rico during a Monday speech about climate change.

“Our fellow Americans are still putting things back together from the last big storm as they face the next one,” he said.

Democratic National Committee Chairman Tom Perez said the party has invested in outreach to Puerto Rican voters.

“We wanted to identify Maria refugees, people who had been forced from the mainland, and as many of you know, many people left with their shirts on their back and their proud 787 numbers,” Perez said. “We went to cellphone vendors in Pennsylvania and Florida, and we asked them, ‘Give us all the 787 area codes that have been picked up off your cell phone towers for the last month.’”

Perez said the party found nearly 300,000 such numbers in Florida and 80,000 in Pennsylvania, another key battleground state.

Biden, who hasn’t been to Florida since last October, has struggled with Latinos in part because of the record-setting number of deportations when President Barack Obama was in the White House. Biden has apologized for that policy.

But unlike his Democratic rival Bernie Sanders, who used strong support among Latinos to notch key primary victories in Nevada and California, Biden has refused to adopt the most liberal positions in his party – especially when it comes to calling for decriminalizing illegal crossings of the U.S.-Mexico border and halting all deportations.

As for Trump, despite many of his anti-immigration policies, some Latino voters have responded positively to the president’s embrace of religious conservative positions and his warnings of protest-related violence and socialism. Trump also frequently visits his Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida, and the president votes absentee in the state.

Carlos Odio, a co-founder of the Democratic polling firm Equis Labs, said that, like Obama in 2008, Biden didn’t need the Latino vote to win the primary. But the coronavirus has limited Biden’s ability to get out and actively court Hispanic voters in the way that Obama could for the general election.

That means Biden is “racing against the clock” to persuade Latinos to vote for him rather than simply being an alternative to all of Trump’s negatives, which isn’t a strong motivator for turnout, Odio said.

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Jaffe reported from Washington.