TAMPA — Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden touched down in Tampa at about 1:10 p.m. Tuesday at Tampa International Airport, and it didn’t take long for it to feel like something less than a typical campaign stop.
His destination, a gymnasium on the campus of Hillsborough Community College, sat empty, but for some production lights and cameras, a lectern in front of a Biden-Harris backdrop, and tables arranged in a half rectangle. In a typical election year, the bleachers would be full of eager supporters ready to hear from their party’s anointed standard bearer; instead, they remained folded into the wall.
And before Biden arrived, the few dozen attendees — mostly reporters and staff — were reminded: “Masks on the whole time and social distancing.”
By 2 p.m. Biden stepped to the lectern and removed his face mask.
“My wife Jill is a community college professor and I’ve known for a long time that community colleges are the best kept secret in America,” he said into a camera, his voice echoing in the rafters.
And so began Biden’s first visit to Florida as the Democratic presidential nominee and his first public sighting in the Tampa Bay area since the race for the White House began. He arrived in the Sunshine State amid the sixth month of a pandemic, with the West Coast on fire, racial tensions flaring and 49 days until voters decide whether all of that warrants a change in leadership.
Biden is running neck-and-neck with President Donald Trump in Florida, a critical swing state once again. A new poll from Florida Atlantic University released ahead of Biden’s visit showed the Democrat running slightly ahead, with the few remaining undecideds breaking toward Trump.
Biden in his remarks soon hit upon the theme of his Tampa visit: the military.
Biden said Trump denigrates service members, and referencing his son, Beau, who served in Iraq, mentioned what he said was the most offensive part of Trump.
“He calls them ‘suckers’ and ‘losers,’” Biden said, a reference to a story in the Atlantic that quoted anonymous sources who said Trump derided deceased and captured soldiers. “(Beau) is gone now. But he was no sucker.”
Biden recited the Atlantic story, which was confirmed by other outlets, in which Trump is reported to have said of fallen service members. “I don’t get it. What was in it for them?" Trump has denied this account.
“What was in it for them?” Biden said. "Donald Trump doesn’t seem to be able to conceive the idea of selfless service, a cause that’s bigger than yourself.”
There are more than 1.5 million veterans in Florida and there are about 94,000 in Hillsborough County, according to the latest population models from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. And Tampa is home to MacDill Air Force Base, a unique installation with members from all branches of service, that hosts two major military headquarters: U.S. Central Command which oversees U.S. military operations in a 20-nation region from Egypt east to Kazakhstan, and U.S. Special Operations Command which trains and equips units such as the Army Rangers, Navy SEALs, Marine Raiders and more.
During a roundtable discussion with local veteran and military groups, Biden touched on a number of issues particularly pertinent to veterans including employment opportunities, education benefits, deferral of social security taxes, and mental health among others.
Veterans nationally faced historic highs in unemployment this summer, and it now sits at 6.4 percent, nearly double what it was to start the year. Military spouses nationally have faced a consistent unemployment rate of about 24 percent since at least 2012, according to the consulting firm Deloitte.
Biden spoke of a need to expand upon the Department of Veterans Affairs' ability to connect veterans with meaningful employment, as well as access and quality of mental health care and telehealth services.
The federal veterans agency reported a 280 percent increase nationwide in mental health care consultations over the phone in March and their national Veterans Crisis Line saw a 5 percent increase in demand by that same month.
He concluded with a message to troops: “I’ll always have your back, like you’ve had our country’s back.”
Tuesday’s roundtable perhaps didn’t produce a knockout soundbite or leave thousands of Biden supporters energized and ready for battle. Nobody yet knows how this modified campaign in the coronavirus era will affect the outcome of the race.
“A rally is fun. It’s fun to go. It’s fun to cheer," said Lauren Weiner, the CEO of WWC Global, a woman-owned defense contractor based in Tampa. "This to me is much more important in terms of trying to understand where people stand.”
Trump, though, has resumed more traditional campaign events. He delivered a stem-winder from the tarmac in front of hundreds of supporters after Air Force One landed in Tampa this summer. Starting Sunday in Nevada, Trump is once again holding in-door rallies, in defiance of guidelines from his own administration.
For the Trump faithful, the strategy is working, and they don’t need him there as an excuse to show up. Nearly 100 people with Trump attire and flags stood at the entrance of Hillsborough Community College awaiting Biden’s arrival. They outnumbered Biden’s backers, though more Biden supporters gathered a block away.
“It’s a different thing to come out to vote than to come out to protest in the rain,” Donna McKenna, 60, said.
Rita Fox, a local Biden organizer from St. Petersburg, said she wasn’t worried about overcoming enthusiasm for Trump.
“I don’t think it’s enthusiasm that is going to win," Fox, 64, said. “It’s not going to be big trucks that pollute the air that win the election.”
Fox, who enlisted as a military police officer at Fort Knox during Vietnam and is an administrator on a Facebook group called Veterans Against Putintrumpism, said those with military backgrounds back Biden.
Fox may be on to something. A recent survey of 1,018 active-duty troops found half of respondents viewed Trump unfavorably, compared to 38 percent who held a favorable view. Meanwhile, 41 percent said they would vote for Biden and 38 percent would vote for Trump, according to the Military Times, an independent defense-themed media outlet. The survey was sent out before the Atlantic story published.
From Tampa, Biden headed to Kissimmee for an event to mark the start of Hispanic Heritage Month. The Orlando suburb is increasingly a focal point for both Biden and Trump as they court Florida’s growing Hispanic population. Trump’s campaign scheduled an event in the same city, where seven in 10 residents are Hispanic or Latino, ahead of Biden’s arrival.
Polls show Biden is performing worse among Hispanic voters than Hillary Clinton did in 2016 when she lost Florida by about 113,000 votes. His campaign insists there’s enough time to turn the tide, but Republicans are blanketing the airwaves, Facebook and WhatsApp with attacks that accuse Biden of harboring socialist tendencies. Biden, who won the nomination by charting a more moderate platform than his contenders, has nevertheless struggled to beat back the onslaught.
“While President Trump fights for all Americans, Biden’s trip to Florida today is a stunning reminder that Biden his not only failing to resonate with Hispanic voters but he is hemorrhaging support in the Latino community because of his far-left agenda,” said Emma Vaughn, spokeswoman for the Republican National Committee.
Before leaving Delaware for Tampa, Biden outlined for reporters how he would grow his support among Hispanic voters.
“Just tell the truth,” Biden said.