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Thursday February 25th, 2021 10:42PM

Trump, Biden hit battleground Pennsylvania amid pandemic

By The Associated Press
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ALLENTOWN, Pa. (AP) — President Donald Trump and Democratic rival Joe Biden zeroed in on the critical battleground of Pennsylvania on Monday, demonstrating starkly different approaches to rallying voters just eight days before polls close during the worst public health crisis in a century.

Trump drew thousands of largely mask-less supporters as he began a final-week charge through nearly a dozen states ahead of the election. Biden, taking a more cautious approach in effort to show that he’s taking the pandemic seriously, greeted a few dozen supporters outside a Chester, Pennsylvania, campaign field office.

“Bottom line is Donald Trump is the worst possible person to lead us through this pandemic,” Biden said as he sharpened his closing message into an indictment of Trump’s handling of the virus. Trump, meanwhile, stoked fears about Biden’s plans to address the outbreak.

“It’s a choice between a Trump boom or a Biden lockdown,” Trump claimed at a rally in Allentown, focusing on the economy and the possibility of lost jobs.

Trump returned to the White House to celebrate the confirmation of Supreme Court Justice Amy Coney Barrett Monday evening. Trump has sought to use the vacancy created by the death of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg last month to animate conservative evangelical and Catholic voters to his candidacy, but the high court fight has been overshadowed by virus concerns.

In Pennsylvania, Trump also touted the appointment of another conservative justice as potentially giving him an edge in election-related litigation surrounding a surge in absentee and mail ballots due to the pandemic.

For each candidate, the differing campaign approaches carry risks.

For Trump, the full-speed-ahead strategy could spread the virus in places that are already setting new records and leave him appearing aloof to the consequences. And if Biden comes up short in the election, his lower-key travel schedule will surely come under scrutiny as a missed opportunity.

Trump’s campaign schedule suggested he’s on the defensive in Pennsylvania, viewed by his aides as critical to his path to 270 electoral votes. Biden, meanwhile, is demonstrating more confidence with signals that he’s hoping to expand his campaign map.

In the closing days Biden plans to visit Georgia, a state that hasn’t voted for a Democratic presidential candidate since 1992, and Iowa, which Trump carried by more than 9 percentage points in 2016. He’s dispatching his running mate, Kamala Harris, later this week to Texas, which hasn’t backed a Democrat for the White House since Jimmy Carter in 1976.

With more than a third of the expected ballots in the election already cast, it could become increasingly challenging for Trump and Biden to reshape the contours of the race. But both men are fighting for any endgame advantage. Biden is leading Trump in most national polls and has an advantage, though narrower, in many key battlegrounds.

While the final week of the campaign is colliding with deepening concerns about the COVID crisis in far-flung parts of the U.S., Trump is anxious for voters to focus on almost anything else. He’s worried that he will lose if the election becomes a referendum on his handling of the pandemic. Biden, meanwhile, is working to ensure the race is just that, hitting Trump on the virus and presenting himself as a safer, more stable alternative.

The stakes were clear this past weekend as the White House became the locus for a second outbreak of the virus in a month. Several close aides to Vice President Mike Pence tested positive, including his chief of staff, Marc Short. Pence, though, was insistent on maintaining his aggressive political calendar, even though he was deemed a “close contact,” claiming the status of an “essential employee.”

Pence arrived at a rally in Hibbing, Minnesota, wearing a mask Monday but removed it as he reached the podium to speak to a crowd of supporters who were largely not wearing face coverings or social distancing. Hibbing police confirmed more than 650 people in attendance, exceeding Minnesota health guidelines to restrict crowds to 250 people.

With Election Day just over a week away, average deaths per day across the country are up 10% over the past two weeks, from 721 to nearly 794 as of Sunday, according to data from Johns Hopkins University. Confirmed infections per day are rising in 47 states, and deaths are up in 34.

The latest national outbreak has provided a potent sign of the divergent approaches the Trump and Biden campaigns have taken to the virus. On Sunday, White House chief of staff Mark Meadows said that “we’re not going to control the pandemic” and the focus should be on containment and treatment.

Biden, in a statement, said Meadows’ comments continued with the Trump administration waving “the white flag of defeat” in the face of the virus.

Trump fired back Monday as he arrived in Pennsylvania, saying Biden, with his concerns about the virus spread, has “waved a white flag on life.”

He rejected Biden’s comments that the nation is facing a “dark winter,” saying, “No it’s not going to be a dark winter. It’s going to be a great winter. It’s going to be a great spring.”

Biden’s team argues the coronavirus is likely to blot out any other issues that might come up in the final days of the campaign — including his recent debate-stage comment in which he affirmed he’d transition away from oil, later walking that back as a transition away from federal subsidies. That strategy appeared to pay off as the outbreak in Pence’s staff refocused the national conversation once again on the pandemic.

Trump and his team, meanwhile, have struggled to settle on a closing message, with the undisciplined candidate increasingly trusting his instincts over his advisers. He’s grasped for dirt on his Democratic rival and used apocalyptic terms to describe a Biden presidency, but Biden has thus far proven more resistant to such attacks than Trump’s 2016 rival, Hillary Clinton.

Anticipating a razor-thin Electoral College margin, Trump has an aggressive schedule including a visit Omaha, Nebraska, Tuesday after a Sunday visit to Maine, aiming to lock up one electoral vote in each of the states that award them by congressional district. Trump is scheduled hold a dizzying 11 rallies in the final 48 hours before polls close.

Biden is sitting on more campaign cash than Trump and is putting it to use, blanketing airwaves with a nearly 2-to-1 advantage over the final two weeks. The incessant campaign ads feature both upbeat messages and blistering criticism of Trump’s handling of the pandemic.

Democrats have been heartened by their lead in the record numbers of early votes that have been cast across a number of battleground states — though they caution that Republicans are more likely to turn out on Election Day and certain to make up ground.

Four years ago, Clinton also enjoyed a lead in national and some state polls, and Democrats say their complacency doomed their candidate.

___

Miller reported from Washington and Jaffe reported from Chester, Pennsylvania. Associated Press writers Aamer Madhani and Jonathan Lemire in Washington and Mohamed Ibrahim in Hibbing, Minnesota contributed to this report.

_

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