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In Florida, as race tightens, Biden outlines plan for Puerto Rico’s recovery

Biden stopped short of endorsing Puerto Rican statehood but outlined a plan to work with representatives of the different positions on the island’s political status to “engage in a fair and binding process to determine their own status.”

KISSIMMEE — During his first visit to Florida as the Democratic presidential nominee, Joe Biden on Tuesday looked to bolster his lackluster support among the state’s Hispanic voters by making a direct appeal to Central Florida’s growing Puerto Rican community.

The former vice president — who one day earlier acknowledged he needed to “work like the devil” to win over more Florida Latinos — visited with a growing Boricua community in Kissimmee. On the first day of Hispanic Heritage month, Biden surrounded himself with Puerto Rican politicians and Hispanic celebrities, and detailed plans to help the island of Puerto Rico recover from voluminous debt and a string of devastating natural disasters.

“There’s no separating out Hispanic heritage from American heritage,” Biden said, starting off his speech by playing a clip from the song “Despacito” after an introduction by Puerto Rican singer Luis Fonsi. “These stories are one and the same and growing more vibrantly intertwined every single day.”

With just seven weeks to go until the Nov. 3 election, Biden’s choreographed visit to Kissimmee reflected the importance of Latinos to his hopes of winning Florida and the presidency.

Polls have shown a tightening race in the state — a must-win for President Donald Trump — and suggest that Biden is struggling to win over Latino voters. An Equis Research survey of more than 1,000 Latinos in Florida completed Aug. 25 found Biden up 53% to Trump’s 37% in the state. That’s well ahead of Trump but behind Hillary Clinton’s 2016 support. Among Puerto Ricans, who make up about one-third of Florida’s 2.4 million Hispanic voters, the Equis Research poll found Biden up 62% to 28% over Trump.

“There are now 49 days until Election Day. I’m asking for your vote. I’m going to work very hard to get it,” Biden said.

Biden’s Florida day trip — his first in exactly one year — also reflected the importance of the Tampa and Orlando media markets, where he and Trump are spending more than $50 million on political ads. He began his afternoon meeting with veterans at Tampa’s Hillsborough Community College before traveling to Osceola Heritage Park, south of Orlando. Between his visits, several campaign surrogates, including pop singer Ricky Martin, visited Orlando’s Pulse nightclub, the sight of a mass shooting in 2016.

Actress Eva Longoria, and fellow celebrities Fonsi and Martin, repeatedly encouraged Hispanics on Tuesday to register to vote and “be the decisive group that votes him Trump out of office.”

“More than any other time, the Hispanic community, the Latino community holds in the palm of their hand the destiny of this country,” Biden said in his speech.

Chuck Rocha, a political strategist who helped Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders win over Latinos during the Democratic primary race, said Biden’s visit to Kissimmee was encouraging. “He should just camp out and move there,” he said.

Rocha has been among the strategists warning in recent months that Biden’s campaign was doing too little to win over Florida Latinos. But he told the Miami Herald Tuesday that the Biden campaign has come around, and he now believes they’ll spend more money messaging to Hispanic votes this year than Barack Obama did in 2012 or Hillary Clinton in 2016.

Rocha said he worries that outside groups aren’t spending enough to turn out Latino voters for Biden at a time when the coronavirus pandemic has disrupted in-person campaigning, but there are reinforcements on the way. On Sunday, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg promised to spend $100 million to support Biden in Florida, with an emphasis on Latinos.

“This is just not a normal election cycle in COVID, so you need a lot more outside support to lift up your message in these communities,” Rocha said.

Ahead of Biden’s arrival in Florida, his political advisors also released a long-awaited plan to help Puerto Rican leaders pull their island out of economic turmoil and rebuild public utilities and assets damaged by years of neglect and repeated natural disasters.

Biden stopped short of endorsing Puerto Rican statehood Tuesday, choosing to restate a plan to work with representatives of the different positions on the island’s political status to “engage in a fair and binding process to determine their own status.” But he said he “personally believes statehood” is the best political status for Puerto Ricans, though “the people of Puerto Rico must decide.”

He also promised to cut red tape bogging down federal assistance, pledged to expand healthcare on the island, and swore to end policies of the Trump administration and even some created under former President Barack Obama, under whom Biden served as vice president.

“Today’s a historical day for Puerto Rico and the Puerto Rican community,” Javier Cuebas, coalitions director for Biden’s Florida campaign, told reporters Tuesday on a conference call. “No president or presidential candidate has ever provided a plan as comprehensive as the one we have in front of us.”

Mercedes Schlapp, a senior adviser to the Trump campaign, dismissed Biden’s Puerto Rico plan saying it “does nothing to address the corruption currently strangling the island.” Puerto Rico has been racked by a series of scandals and arrests in recent years of senior government officials.

She touted the Trump administration’s recent efforts to revitalize the pharmaceutical industry in Puerto Rico through their White House representative to Puerto Rico, Rear Adm. Peter Brown. Brown has recently made trips to the island, pitching Puerto Rico as a domestic alternative to China for the production of medical devices.

“The only reason why Biden is now pretending to care about Boricuas is because he needs their votes and polls show him struggling with Hispanics across the nation,” Schlapp said.

But as he waited for Biden to arrive in Kissimmee, Federico De Jesús, who served as national director of communications for Hispanic media for the Obama campaign in 2008, said Biden’s plan was “a great start.” Though many Puerto Ricans have pushed Biden to back statehood for the island, De Jesús said he was pleased that Biden maintained his stance on Puerto Rico’s political status and did not back one specific option.

“That’s a good signal,” said De Jesús, now a senior adviser to the advocacy coalition Power 4 Puerto Rico. “We’re pleased that Biden stuck to the inclusive and binding approach” that he had previously supported.

Biden’s campaign hasn’t only been focused on Hispanic voters in Florida. Last week, his running mate, California Senator Kamala Harris, paid a visit to a Venezuelan restaurant in Doral, but also met with Black leaders in Miami Gardens, and her husband sat down with rabbis in Aventura.