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Joe Biden holds first and only rally in the Tampa Bay area as the Democratic nominee

The drive-in event was much smaller than Trump’s larger rally across town earlier Thursday, but it followed public health protocols.

TAMPA — Former Vice President Joe Biden, fighting for support in the voter-rich Tampa Bay area, delivered a final plea Thursday for Floridians to reject four more years of President Donald Trump and all the baggage he said would come with it.

Speaking at the Florida State Fairgrounds hours after Trump visited Tampa, Biden tore into the current administration for its handling of everything from the economy to the summer of civil unrest. He questioned Trump’s small tax bill, insinuated the president was up to his ears in debt and accused him of dividing the country.

But he saved his sharpest criticism for Trump’s stewardship of the coronavirus, which he said was responsible for 165,000 of the 228,000 deaths related to COVID-19. He called Trump’s rally at Raymond James Stadium early in the day a “super-spreader” event that further demonstrated how little the president cared about controlling the virus.

Related: Trump makes late appeal to Tampa supporters at Raymond James rally

“Donald Trump has waved the white flag," Biden said, before he was rushed off stage by a sudden downpour. "But the American people never give up, never give in.”

The rally was Biden’s first, and most likely last, in the Tampa Bay area before Tuesday’s election. Democrat Hillary Clinton gave this part of Florida much more attention during her 2016 campaign for president. Biden, though, was sidelined during the summer as coronavirus deaths spiked here and around the country.

Hillsborough County has for decades hosted many campaigns in the final days of presidential races. None of those events looked like the one held Thursday at the Florida State Fairgrounds.

The vehicles, decked out in Biden signs, arrived early in the afternoon and were meticulously spaced out. Masked drivers and their passengers timidly ventured out for distanced hellos with other supporters.

It began with Tampa Mayor Jane Castor jumped on a stage Thursday night, looked out at rows of cars and sensible SUVs and yelled into a microphone: “Honk if you are voting for Joe Biden."

Later, state Sen. Janet Cruz, D-Tampa, warned: “You’re too damn close to each other. Spread out!”

Biden’s socially distanced rally could not have looked more different than the Trump rally early in the day across town at Raymond James Stadium. But it certainly reflected the candidate: Understated, practical and adhering to public health guidelines that Trump has refused to follow.

Dolly Sigl, 53 of Plant City ,a supporter of the Democratic candidate for president Joe Biden waves a flag at the Florida State Fairgrounds for a drive in rally on Thursday in Tampa.
Dolly Sigl, 53 of Plant City ,a supporter of the Democratic candidate for president Joe Biden waves a flag at the Florida State Fairgrounds for a drive in rally on Thursday in Tampa. [ LUIS SANTANA | Times ]

Nadine Lima, a Hillsborough Community College teacher, appreciated the safety protocols. Her brother-in-law is in a Massachusetts Intensive Care Unit with coronavirus. She couldn’t understand why Trump supporters would risk their health to see the president again.

“It feels like we’re in science fiction,” Lima said.

Tampa was Biden’s second stop in the Sunshine State on Thursday. He spent the early part of the day in Broward County. Biden’s swing through Florida five days before the election underscores the importance of the state’s 29 Electoral College votes. Most last-minute polls show the race is nearly tied and certainly within the margin of error.

Related: Will Donald Trump or Joe Biden win Florida? Here’s how either could do it

Hillsborough County voted for Clinton in 2016 by a seven-point margin. The gap was even wider in 2018 for Democratic gubernatorial candidate Andrew Gillum.

Related: Half of registered Floridians have voted as Election Day looms

Biden has run even with Trump in Florida thanks in part to seniors, polls show, but Richard and Mary Frillici don’t see it in their Ellenton neighborhood. They’re the only Biden sign on the block, they said.

“I wish the young people would get more involved because they don’t know what they’re losing,” Richard Frillici, 77, said.

His grandson, Jack Lafayette, was in earshot and offered a rebuttal. “All of my friends are voting for Biden,” said Lafayette, who at 19 is a first-time voter.

Early voting numbers have so far shown Lafayette’s age group turning out at higher rates than they did in 2016.

Attendance to the event was limited and some people were turned away at the gate, like Marena Hernandez, 54, who waved a blue bath towel in the direction of the stage. She’d heard about the rally on the news Thursday, and she asked her daughter, 30-year-old Jennifer Fuentes, if she wanted to check it out.

No dice. But they still wanted to hang out and show support. Biden hadn’t been Fuentes' first pick — she liked Bernie Sanders — but she didn’t care about accusations that Biden wasn’t “progressive enough,” she said. Anything, to her, was better than Trump.

“I’d rather have a president who is going to uphold democracy,” she said.

Hernandez was most concerned about Trump’s relationship with Cuba, she said in Spanish, with her daughter translating. She believed the past few years had been a step back. Many of their Cuban family members and friends in Miami support Trump, Fuentes said.

“I think a lot of it comes from fear,” she said. “All they hear is ‘socialist,’ so they freak out. They don’t understand how it’s different from what it is in Cuba.”

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