LUMBERTON, N.C. (AP) — President Donald Trump assured supporters packed shoulder to shoulder Saturday that “we’re rounding the turn” and mocked challenger Joe Biden for raising alarms about the pandemic. Meanwhile, Biden bemoaned to a smaller gathering the need to campaign at a distance but said he understood the public health reasons behind it.
With coronavirus infections reaching their highest peak of the pandemic just as the election headed into the home stretch, Trump and Biden took starkly different approaches to the public health crisis in appealing for votes in battleground states.
”We don’t want to become superspreaders,” Biden told supporters at a “drive-in” rally Saturday in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, picking up a term that has been used to describe the Rose Garden event in late September in which Trump announced his Supreme Court nominee. More than two dozen people linked to the White House have contracted COVID-19 since that gathering.
In Lumberton, North Carolina, his tongue firmly in cheek, Trump called Biden “an inspiring guy” for raising alarm about the pandemic. The president said that he watched Biden’s Bucks County rally as he flew to North Carolina and sarcastically observed that it appeared attendees, who were in their cars, weren’t properly socially distancing.
“You know why we have cases?” Trump said. “’Cause we test so much. And in many ways, it’s good. And in many ways, it’s foolish. In many ways, OK? In many ways it’s very foolish.”
Trump continued to criticize Biden for saying during Thursday’s debate that the country was headed for a “dark winter” because of the pandemic — the scenario of a surge in infections that health experts warned about for months. Nearly 224,000 people in the United States have died and more than 83,000 infections were reported on Friday alone, a record.
“We’re rounding the turn … our numbers are incredible,” Trump said.
The president has repeatedly accused Biden and other Democrats of pushing measures that are worse than the coronavirus itself by advocating for social distancing and limits on gatherings that Trump says wreak havoc on the economy.
Biden, in an interview with Pod Save America aired Saturday, said his first priority is to “get control of the virus” because the economy can’t move forward without stemming the disease.
“As I said before, I will shut down the virus, not the economy,” Biden said in Bucks County. “We can walk and chew gum at the same time, and build back better than before.”
Trump, who spent Friday night at his Mar-a-Lago resort after campaigning in Florida, visited an early voting polling site set up at a public library to cast his own ballot Saturday morning. The president last year switched his official residence from New York to his private Florida club, complaining that New York politicians had treated him badly.
Greeted at the polling site by a crowd of cheering supporters, Trump opted to vote in person rather than mail in his ballot. He wore a mask inside, following local rules to mitigate the spread of the coronavirus. He later said that he voted for “a guy named Trump” and that a poll worker asked him identification. The president said he used his passport.
Biden hasn’t voted but is likely do so in person on Election Day, Nov. 3, as Delaware doesn’t offer early voting. Trump, who has made unsubstantiated claims of massive fraud about mail-in voting, gave another plug to in-person voting.
“When you send in your ballot it could never be like that. It could never be secure like that,” Trump said.
The rise in coronavirus cases is an ominous sign the disease still has a firm grip on the nation that has more confirmed virus-related deaths and infections than any other in the world. Many states say hospitals are running out of space in areas where the pandemic seemed remote only months ago.
Biden’s focus on Pennsylvania again highlights the state’s central place in the election. Bucks County is part of suburban Philadelphia that Democrat Hillary Clinton won by a slim margin in the 2016 White House race. Biden hosted another rally later Saturday in Luzerne County, a blue-collar area that twice voted for Barack Obama but went overwhelmingly for Trump four years ago.
Biden’s was joined by rock star Jon Bon Jovi, a native of neighboring New Jersey who as a child spent summers with grandparents in Erie, Pennsylvania. Bon Jovi performed three songs at the Luzerne event.
More than 54 million votes have already been cast, with an additional 100 million or so expected before a winner is declared.
The pandemic has pushed Trump onto the defensive for much of the fall, but for the moment it is Biden’s team that has been forced to explain itself. In the final minutes of Thursday night’s debate, the former vice president said he supports a “transition” away from oil in the U.S. in favor of renewable energy. The campaign released a statement hours later declaring that he would phase out taxpayer subsidies for fossil fuel companies, not the industry altogether.
But Trump, campaigning in North Carolina, hammered Biden on the issue and used it as a way to question his rival’s mental acuity.
“He’s either crazy or he’s the worst liar,” Trump said. “I actually think there’s a third category. I think he doesn’t remember.”
As part of his damage control, Biden dispatched his running mate, Sen. Kamala Harris, to help clarify his position as she campaigned Friday in Georgia, a reliably Republican state that has shifted toward the Democrats. He also sought to clarify his position during remarks on Saturday, again rejecting Trump’s charge that he would ban fracking, which has proved to be a boon in Pennsylvania.
“Let me be clear, I’m not banning fracking in Pennsylvania or anywhere else,” Biden said.
While ending the nation’s reliance on fossil fuel is popular among many liberals, the idea could hurt Biden among working-class voters in swing states such as Pennsylvania and Ohio who depend on the industry to make a living.
Biden has said he would ban new gas and oil permits — including fracking — on federal lands only. The vast majority of oil and gas does not come from federal lands.