Joe Biden visited Florida for the first time as the Democratic presidential nominee Tuesday, seeking to bolster his candidacy with Latinos and veterans following complaints from party leaders nervous about his standing in the crucial battleground state.
In a speech aimed largely at Puerto Rican voters, Biden took sharp aim at President Donald Trump over his panned responses to COVID-19 and Hurricane Maria, among what Biden identified as presidential blunders he said have badly damaged Latino communities.
“Donald Trump has done nothing but assault the dignity of Hispanic families over and over and over and over again,” Biden said in comments marking the start of National Hispanic Heritage Month. “It’s wrong.”
He cast himself as an alternative who would stand up for Latinos and help improve their lives, and he nodded to their crucial role in the upcoming election. “More than any other time, the Hispanic community and the Latino community hold in the palm of their hand the destiny of this country,” Biden said.
The remarks were part of an urgent push to shore up his support among Latino voters. They came amid increasingly vocal criticism from Latino leaders that the Biden campaign’s outreach to their community has been lackluster, which they say could potentially cost him badly on Election Day.
In addition to visiting Kissimmee, a community to which many residents of Puerto Rico moved after Hurricane Maria devastated the island, Biden unveiled a plan to create a federal working group for Puerto Rico to help with recovery efforts and economic advancement. The plan calls for accelerating access to reconstruction funding, forgiving disaster relief loans to municipalities and bolstering local businesses.
He also sat down for an interview with Jose Diaz-Balart of Telemundo, his first one-on-one session with a national Spanish-language network since clinching the nomination.
Biden voiced support for Puerto Rican statehood, saying it would be the most “effective means of ensuring the residents of Puerto Rico are treated equally.” But, he added, “the people of Puerto Rico must decide.” Puerto Rico will have a statehood referendum on its ballot in November.
Earlier in the day, Biden met with veterans, highlighting an area where he has been able to siphon support from Trump, in part because many elderly voters are unhappy with the president’s handling of the novel coronavirus pandemic. In addressing Latinos, in contrast, Biden was trying to stem Trump’s gains among a traditionally Democratic group.
“In my view, based on reports, from interviews, President Trump has proven he’s unfit to hold the office of the presidency time and again,” Biden said at a roundtable with veterans and military families in Tampa. “But nowhere are his faults more glaring and more offensive, to me at least, than when it comes to his denigration of our service members.”
Biden was referring to a report in the Atlantic magazine that Trump has called fallen soldiers “losers” and “suckers.” The comments were later confirmed in part by The Washington Post and other news organization. Trump has denied them.
In criticizing Trump, Biden referred to his late son Beau Biden, who served in Iraq and died of cancer in 2015.
“He’s gone now — but he was no sucker,” Biden said.
Biden is favored to win the Latino vote — in Florida and nationally — but some recent polls show his margins lagging behind Hillary Clinton’s support from Latinos in 2016, and speaking to reporters Tuesday, he acknowledged that he has work to do.
“Look, what I have to do is make the case why it will be so much better for the Hispanic community, the Latino community, if in fact Trump is no longer president,” Biden told reporters. That case, he added, includes “education, health care, immigration, the whole notion of dealing with COVID in a way that doesn’t so damage the Hispanic community, which is hurt very badly, much worse than the Caucasian community.”
He suggested that Trump is doing little to help pass legislation that could benefit Latino and other voters. “He should get off the damn golf course and sit down in the Oval Office and sit with both Republicans and Democrats and get something done,” Biden said.
Trump and his supporters argue that his presidency has been highly beneficial for Latinos, especially when in job creation, an assertion that sidesteps the pandemic’s significant economic impact on minority communities.
On Tuesday, Trump’s allies sought to make the case that Democrats pose as friends of Latinos but do little to help then. Former Puerto Rico Attorney General Jose Fuentes accused Biden of viewing the Latino community as a “political prop.”
Regarding polls suggesting that Biden has ground to make up in the Latino community, activists and leaders cite several reasons. They note a lingering displeasure with Barack Obama’s deportation policies, a lack of detail in Biden’s own immigration plans, an inner circle that lacks a large number of Latinos, and a perception that Biden’s campaign has placed a priority on attracting White suburbanites and African Americans, rather than courting Latinos.
Biden’s campaign has defended his efforts, saying the former vice president is pursuing a diverse electoral coalition like the one that rallied behind Obama in 2008 and 2012. Biden’s running mate, Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., has spoken or met several times with Latino groups.
On the bright side for Biden, he appears to be eating into Trump’s once dominant advantage among older voters, and on Tuesday he slammed Trump over his talk of a payroll tax cut, framing such a move as a danger to Social Security.
“It’s just absolutely foolish. What we should be is increasing Social Security for people,” Biden said in an interview with WFLA TV in Tampa.
In a state with many retirees, Biden’s strength with the group has put him in a position to win, and polls suggest Florida is now a tossup. With 29 electoral votes, it is the largest true battleground, and Trump’s path to victory narrows considerably if Biden can capture it. Trump narrowly won the state in 2016.
Biden chose Central Florida for his first big Florida trip, a battleground area with a large Puerto Rican population. Puerto Rican voters have tended to favor Democrats, and Biden is wagering that he can continue that trend.
In contrast, Biden did not travel Tuesday to South Florida, where there are signs he is struggling with the Cuban American community.
Republicans have unleashed an onslaught of GOP attacks branding Democrats as socialists, and that appears to have had some effect despite Biden’s longtime political identity as a centrist.
Further roiling the political waters in Florida, former New York mayor Mike Bloomberg recently promised to spend $100 million to bolster Biden in the state. A significant amount of that will go toward Spanish-language advertising.
In his speech, Biden hardly mentioned immigration policy — a polarizing issue, but one that is important to many Latino voters — saying only that he would pursue a system that would “treat people with dignity and is true to American values.”
Biden was introduced by several Latinos stars, including Puerto Rican musical artists Ricky Martin and Luis Fonsi.
“I just have one thing to say,” Biden said after Fonsi introduced him. He pulled out his phone and played his hit single, “Despacito,” as he bobbed and swayed with a smile.
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The Washington Post’s Felicia Sonmez contributed to this report.