MIAMI, Florida (AFP) — Florida voters converged on early polling stations Monday in a pivotal state fought over relentlessly by US President Donald Trump and Democratic challenger Joe Biden, as their contentious White House race enters its final 15-day stretch.
Record numbers of Americans have already cast ballots in person or by mail — just shy of 30 million, according to one tracker — ahead of the November 3 election, as the rivals race from one swing state to another to marshal support.
With Biden dispatching his running mate Kamala Harris to Florida to rally voters there, Trump was on a western swing in battleground Arizona, where he won in 2016 but now narrowly trails his rival in statewide polling.
Trump pledged to build the coronavirus-ravaged economy back to pre-pandemic levels and savaged Biden for wanting to “let socialists run wild in our country.”
“You’re lucky I’m your president,” Trump boomed to masses of protesters, many without masks and not practicing social distancing, gathered at his outdoor rally in Prescott, north of Phoenix.
The election is rapidly boiling down to whether voters see Trump as best placed to revive the battered economy, or they believe the president has exacerbated the pandemic and want Biden to fulfill his pledge to unify a divided country.
The battle has played out in eight or nine swing states for months, but perhaps nowhere more intensely than Florida, the largest up-for-grabs prize of them all, delivering 29 of the state-by-state Electoral College votes that decide who wins the presidency.
Voters in southern Florida lined up wearing masks and at a respectful social distance for the start of in-person voting.
At a Miami Beach polling station, Jackeline Maurice, a writer in her 40s, was excitedly snapping selfies with an “I voted” sticker on after casting her ballot for Biden.
“I’ve been waiting four years to vote,” she said.
Maurice said she was “cautiously optimistic” about the 77-year-old Democrat’s prospects.
In nearby Hialeah, some 200 people, mostly Cuban Americans, were in line to vote at a library, including Ulysses Liriano.
The 51-year-old said he was voting for the president because “Trump has made lots of changes for us in our country,” notably with the economy.
“It was an inconvenience what happened now with the corona, and they want to use that against him,” he said.
Nationwide, Biden leads Trump by 8.9 percentage points, according to a RealClearPolitics average of polls, and the Democrat has more modest leads in several battleground states.
The Florida race is tightening down to a knife-edge; statewide polls show Biden ahead by an average of 1.4 percentage points — compared to 4.5 points less than two weeks ago.
The increasingly diverse state is a bellwether, having voted for the candidate who ultimately became president in 18 of the past 20 elections — including Republican Trump in 2016.
Biden, fresh off two events in North Carolina, another state Democrats want to flip, dispatched Harris to Florida for a drive-in rally in Orlando and a voter mobilization event in Jacksonville.
The events are key for Democratic efforts in larger, more urban areas to offset the advantages Trump has in smaller counties across Florida.
Harris told Orlando voters that the nation is grappling with multiple crises linked to the pandemic, what she called “the greatest failure of any presidential administration in the history of America.”
Biden, who faces off with Trump Thursday in their final debate, echoed the need for change.
“Together, we can put an end to the last four years of darkness, division, and chaos,” he tweeted. “We can unite, mend our wounds, and begin to heal.”
New Trump attacks on his own administration emerged Monday, when he slammed top government scientist Anthony Fauci and other experts for focusing too much on the pandemic.
“People are saying, ‘Whatever — just leave us alone.’ They’re tired of it. People are tired of hearing Fauci and all these idiots,” the president reportedly said on a call with campaign staffers.
He has also ramped up his Biden attacks, again raising a disputed allegation that messages on a laptop computer belonging to Biden’s son Hunter implicated the former vice president in corrupt links to Ukraine, calling it a “proven fact.”
Biden’s team rejects the allegations as a “smear campaign” and an attempt to distract from Trump’s handling of the pandemic which has killed 220,000 Americans, and is now spreading in many states at rates unseen in months.