WASHINGTON — Joe Biden ventured back onto the campaign trail Thursday, targeting the critical battleground state of Florida — but without actually leaving home.
The presumptive Democratic presidential nominee is staying in his Delaware house amid efforts to slow the spread of the coronavirus, which has shut down most aspects of American life, including the presidential campaign. But he held a virtual roundtable on Thursday with more than a dozen African American leaders in Jacksonville, including Rep. Al Lawson.
“It’s great to be in Jacksonville today,” Biden said, grinning. “I’m anxious to get down in person to campaign.”
Biden later held an online rally focused on Tampa voters that featured many of the fixtures from an in-person appearance, including the Pledge of Allegiance, a DJ and introductions by state and local leaders. It frequently didn’t go well, however, with lengthy delays between speakers and connection issues that made what was said often difficult to understand.
When he finally made it on camera, Biden asked, “Am I on?” while peeling off a pair of sunglasses. He said that he wished he could have done the Tampa event in person — and that it could have gone “more smoothly.”
Despite the glitches, the virtual stops marked the first time Biden has tried to emulate a traditional campaign swing through a key state since locking up the Democratic primary nearly a month ago. In previous weeks, the former vice-president used a makeshift studio in his basement rec room to hold online fundraisers and discussions with top Democrats.
Even as he has repeatedly poked fun at himself over his lack of online prowess, though, Biden faces mounting pressures and concerns from Democrats to step up his visibility amid President Donald Trump’s dominant presence on social media and across traditional news outlets.
“Tampa will not be broken,” Biden said during the evening rally, referring to the spread of the coronavirus.
Earlier, Biden told participants during the Jacksonville roundtable, “I’m going to need you if we win in November.” He promised to reinvigorate the economy in a way that could reduce economic inequality, adding, “I’m going to need you to rebuild the backbone of this country, but bring along everyone this time.”
Biden’s evolving online campaign will continue Friday with an exclusive appearance on NowThis, a video-heavy news outlet that boasts a monthly audience that includes 60% of Americans in their 20s by distributing content across platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat and TikTok. Biden, according to NowThis, will preview his central economic pitch for the general election.
The back-to-back virtual campaign days were meant to approximate a more normal, travel-heavy campaign schedule, and NowThis can connect the 77-year-old candidate to a swath of younger voters whom he’s largely failed to excite so far.
All of this comes as Trump’s campaign has stepped up its efforts to portray the former vice-president as soft on China. It released an online video Thursday that included clips of Biden previously describing that country as “not bad folks” and saying economic growth there was in the U.S. interest. The Trump administration also is making ever louder pronouncements casting blame on China for the coronavirus pandemic, aiming to defuse increasingly sharp domestic criticism of the president’s own response.
Biden said the virus has disproportionately affected minority communities, often because they have inadequate access to health care. He said it is “shining a very bright light on” institutional racism.
The former vice-president was also asked about his promises to build on the Obama administration’s signature health law — rather than embrace universal insurance coverage under the “Medicare for All” program that dominated debate during the Democratic primary. Biden noted that he was working with Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders and other top progressives to find ways to expand health care coverage, but to do so in ways that wouldn’t require so much additional government spending.
“For everyone who backed Medicare for All, join us,” he said.
Trump won Florida by only about 1 percentage point over Hillary Clinton in 2016, but his showing there was a harbinger of the strong election night he was to have. While still a tossup, Florida has begun to lean Republican by narrow margins in recent key races, including Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis’ win over Democrat Andrew Gillum by only about 33,000 votes in 2018.
Also during the afternoon roundtable, Biden spoke about the slaying of Ahmaud Arbery, a black man in Georgia who was pursued by two armed white men while he was jogging and was shot. The killing happened in February but has sparked a renewed outcry now that cellphone video has surfaced. Biden decried Arbery’s “brutal murder,” saying he was “in a sense lynched before our very eyes.”
Associated Press writer Bill Barrow contributed to this report from Atlanta.
Will Weissert, The Associated Press