Donald Trump attacked his opponent’s family and defended his own struggle to contain the coronavirus on Friday as he fought to energise his sagging re-election bid in the nation’s Sunbelt.
With Election Day looming, Democrat Joe Biden pushed to keep voters focused on health care in the Midwest.
President Trump was campaigning in Florida and Georgia, neighbouring states he carried four years ago and must win again to extend his presidency.
His decision to devote Friday evening’s prime-time slot to Georgia in particular highlighted the serious nature of his challenge in the 2020 contest’s closing days: Far from his original plan to expand into Democratic-leaning states, he is labouring to stave off a defeat of major proportions.
No Republican presidential candidate has lost Georgia since George H. Bush in 1992. And earlier this week, Mr Trump had to court voters in Iowa, a state he carried by almost 10 points four years ago.
In Florida on Friday, the president derided the Bidens as “an organised crime family,” renewing his daily claims about the candidate’s son, Hunter, and his business dealings in Ukraine and China.
More to the point for Mr Trump’s Florida audience, he spoke directly to seniors who have increasingly soured on his handling of the pandemic.
“I am moving heaven and earth to safeguard our seniors from the China virus,” Mr Trump said, using his usual blame-shifting term to describe the coronavirus.
He also offered an optimistic assessment of the pandemic, even as a surge of new infections spread across America.
“We are prevailing,” the president said, promising to deliver the first doses of a vaccine to seniors when it is ready.
Despite the tough talk, Mr Trump’s actions on the ground in Florida underscored the conflicting messages his administration has sent throughout the pandemic. All the president’s security personnel and support staff were wearing face masks when Air Force One touched down, but Mr Trump and Florida’s Republican governor Ron DeSantis were bare faced.
Crowds gathered at the president’s subsequent events, many without masks as well.
It was just the opposite as Mr Biden opened his Michigan swing at a suburban Detroit community centre. In keeping with his usual protocols, Mr Biden and all participants wore masks throughout the event, except when they were speaking, and a small crowd of dozens of reporters and supporters watched from folding chairs separated by circles to ensure social distancing.
“He’s living in a dream world,” Mr Biden said of Mr Trump’s rosy predictions of the pandemic.
The former vice president then turned to the Trump administration’s court fight to overturn the “Obamacare” health coverage law — including its protection for people with pre-existing conditions — without having a replacement plan.
“Mishandling the pandemic isn’t enough for Trump,” Mr Biden charged. “On top of that he’s still trying to take away your health care.”
Meanwhile, the president’s campaign released new numbers suggesting he was likely the first incumbent president to face a financial disadvantage in the modern era.
Mr Trump’s campaign, along with the Republican National Committee and associated groups, raised $247.8 million (£191.9 million) in September, well short of the $383 million (£296.5 million) raised by Mr Biden and the Democratic National Committee.
To open October, the Trump effort officially had $251.4 million (£194.6 million) in the bank, according to a campaign spokesman, compared to $432 million (£334.5 million) for Mr Biden.
The president was seeking momentum on the campaign trail a day after he and Mr Biden squared off in duelling televised town halls that showcased striking differences in temperament, views on racial justice and approaches to the pandemic.
On NBC, Mr Trump was defensive about his administration’s handling of the coronavirus, which has claimed more than 217,000 lives in the US, and evasive when pressed about whether he took a required Covid-19 test before his first debate with Mr Biden.
Angry and combative, Mr Trump refused to denounce the QAnon conspiracy group — and only testily did so regarding white supremacists.
The Republican president also appeared to acknowledge revelations from a recent New York Times report that he was in debt and left open the possibility that some of it was owed to a foreign bank. But he insisted he did not owe any money to Russia or any “sinister people” and suggested that $400 million (£310 million) in debt was a “very, very small percentage” compared to his overall assets.
It (the Covid crisis) is getting worse, as predicted. The president knew and lied about knowingJoe Biden
Speaking in Florida on Friday, Mr Trump sarcastically called the NBC event “a nice pleasurable evening” and criticised moderator Savannah Guthrie for “going totally crazy”.
On ABC, Mr Biden suggested he would offer clarity on his position on expanding the Supreme Court if Mr Trump’s nominee to the bench was seated before Election Day.
And as he again denounced the White House’s handling of the virus, declaring Mr Trump’s administration was at fault for closing a pandemic response office established by the Obama administration in which he served.
“It’s getting worse, as predicted,” Mr Biden said in Michigan of the rising coronavirus numbers. “The president knew and lied about knowing.”