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Jill Biden brings message of unity to St. Petersburg at drive-in rally

The former second lady returned to the Tampa Bay area for the first time since the pandemic started. A lot has changed.

ST. PETERSBURG — Former Second Lady Jill Biden, speaking Friday in one of the most contentious battlegrounds of a deeply divided Florida, shared an upbeat message that insisted the country can reunite again and that her husband, Joe Biden, is the man to do it.

“Our differences are precious, and our similarities are infinite,” Biden said. “We don’t agree on everything. We don’t have to we can still love and respect one another.”

It was Biden’s first visit to the region since March, when former vice president Joe Biden was still competing in the Democratic presidential primary, and the scene was a reminder of how much has changed in the past seven months.

Unlike President Donald Trump’s recent Florida rallies, Biden peered out at a parking lot full of vehicles decorated in signs and American colors. Car horns, not applause, responded to her hopeful rhetoric. Those who stepped out to catch a better glimpse of her wore masks and stayed a healthy distance from others.

“All of us feel it, the chaos of this moment,” Biden said. “The little things we’d never thought we’d lose, like hugging our friends or smiling at strangers without a mask. Still, we keep going, don’t we?"

Biden was speaking to people like Pam Rock, an Atlanta physical therapist who is out of work because of the pandemic and whose two daughters are distance learning. They attended Biden’s rally while escaping the monotony in St. Petersburg.

“This has affected us so much,” Rock said.

Related: Trump jokes he’ll fire DeSantis if he loses Florida. ‘I’ll find a way.’

Biden was joined Friday by a slate of local Democrats and state Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried, who urged supporters to vote early. Those two words hung in giant letters next to the stage. Early voting begins Monday in Florida, though more than 1.2 million Democrats have already sent in ballots by mail, far outpacing Republicans.

Pinellas County has become one of the state’s most recognizable bellwethers. Except for the hyper-close 2000 contest, the county has turned toward the winning presidential candidate in every election since 1980. President Donald Trump won the county by 1.1 percent, about the same margin as his statewide victory.

To repeat those results, Trump would have to turn the race quickly or expose a tremendous flaw in polling. A recent St. Pete Polls survey of 1,724 likely Pinellas County voters showed Biden carrying a staggering 13.5-point lead into the final weeks of the race with a small fraction of undecided voters.

Former Second Lady Jill Biden campaigns for her husband, Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden, at St. Petersburg College in St. Petersburg on Oct. 16, 2020. People attended the event, called a "drive-in," in their vehicles and remained socially distant throughout. [ STEVE CONTORNO | Steve Contorno ]

Scott Johni pulled up to Biden’s event with his wife, Lisa. Johni, 53, hoping to hear how Joe Biden will move the country forward. Johni recalled speaking to his stepfather on his birthday by phone early in the pandemic. Within days, his stepfather died from the coronavirus.

“At that time, Trump was basically calling it a hoax,” Johni said. “People are going to be motivated to vote. This illness is very personal to people.”

Related: Back in Florida, Trump rallies in Ocala with 18 days to go

Tampa Bay Times elections coverage

VOTER GUIDE IS COMING SOON: The Tampa Bay Times will publish a special election section Sunday, Oct. 18, with information on local races. You can also access our Know Your Candidates guide at tampabay.com/voterguide.

HAVE QUESTIONS ABOUT VOTING IN FLORIDA? WE HAVE THE ANSWERS: We’ve compiled information on voter registration deadlines, rules for voting by mail and more.

AMENDMENTS: State constitutional amendments on the 2020 ballot, explained.

FELONY CONVICTION? Here are Florida’s rules for registering to vote.

MAIL-IN BALLOTS: So you want to vote by mail in Florida? Here’s what you need to know.

POSTAL SERVICE CONCERNS: What’s going on with the U.S. Postal Service and should Florida be worried?

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