WILMINGTON, Del. — President Donald Trump and his allies fought for momentum in election battleground states on Friday after a debate performance that gave new hope to anxious Republicans. Democrat Joe Biden tried to clean up a debate misstep while urging voters to stay focused on the president’s inability to control the worsening pandemic.
The surge of activity with just 11 days remaining in the 2020 contest highlighted the candidates’ divergent strategies, styles and policy prescriptions shaping the election’s closing days. Nearly 50 million votes have already been cast, with an additional 100 million or so expected before a winner is declared.
The coronavirus debate has pushed Trump onto the defensive for much of the fall, but for the moment it was Biden’s team that was forced to explain itself. In the final moments of Thursday’s debate, the former vice president said he supports a “transition” away from oil in the U.S. in favor of renewable energy. The campaign released a statement hours later declaring that he would phase out taxpayer subsidies for fossil fuel companies, not the industry altogether.
While ending the nation’s reliance on fossil fuel is popular among many liberals, that prospect could hurt Biden among working-class voters in swing states such as Pennsylvania, Ohio and Texas who depend on the industry, and fracking in particular, to make a living.
“Let’s be really clear about this: Joe Biden is not going to ban fracking,” running mate Kamala Harris told reporters in Georgia on Friday. “He is going to deal with the oil subsidies. You know, the president likes to take everything out of context. But let’s be clear, what Joe was talking about was banning subsidies, but he will not ban fracking in America.”
Trump’s allies immediately began running new attack ads seizing on the Democrats’ inconsistent answers on energy. One ad unveiled Friday calls Biden and Harris “fracking liars.” Another claims Biden’s plans could cost up to 600,000 jobs in Pennsylvania alone.
Speaking in the Oval Office before making multiple stops in Florida, Trump lapped up positive feedback for his toned-down debate performance, which marked a sharp shift away from his constant badgering of Biden in last month’s contest.
“This was better,” an upbeat Trump said, predicting as always sweeping success on Election Day even as polls suggest he and his party are behind. “It’s going to be a great red wave like you’ve never seen before.”
He planned to highlight Biden’s comments on oil when facing Florida seniors later in the day.
“I showed that Joe Biden is totally controlled by the radical socialist left,” Trump said in his prepared remarks, contending that Biden “admitted that he wants to abolish the oil industry.”
Both campaigns predictably claimed a boost from the televised debate that drew an audience of tens of millions. But with roughly one-third of expected ballots already cast through early voting, it is unclear how much the faceoff could alter the course of the campaign.
The pandemic was the early focus of Thursday’s debate and it was the sole focus of Biden’s only public appearance on Friday close to his home in Delaware, which is hardly a swing state.
During the debate, Trump rosily predicted that the pandemic, which is escalating in several states, will “go away;” Biden countered that the nation was headed toward “a dark winter.” The former vice president reiterated that theme Friday in Wilmington as he outlined a specific plan to contain the disease.
If elected, Biden vowed to work with Congress to enact a new coronavirus relief package by the end of January after seeking input from Republican and Democratic governors. He also promised to encourage state leaders to implement mask mandates. Should they refuse, Biden said he would lean on municipal leaders to require universal mask wearing in their communities.
“We’re more than eight months into this crisis, the president still doesn’t have a plan. He’s given up,” Biden charged. “I’m not going to shut down the country. I’m going to shut down the virus.”
Even in the closing days of the race, the Democrat has maintained a cautious campaign schedule, citing the pandemic, while Trump has been a much more aggressive traveler. With Biden briefly appearing in Delaware, Trump was attending a pair of rallies in battleground Florida before casting an early ballot on Saturday in his adopted home state.
For better or worse, Trump’s fate in Florida is likely tied to his leadership on the pandemic. And there are indications that the state’s large and vulnerable senior population has not been satisfied by his inability to enact any kind of comprehensive federal plan.
“From the beginning, our top priority has been sheltering those at highest risk — including the elderly and those with underlying health conditions,” Trump was to tell voters at the sprawling central Florida retirement community known as the Villages, according to his prepared remarks.
The president, who has belittled scientists who disagree with his statements on the pandemic, said, “I will use science, vaccines and medicine to rescue America’s seniors.”
Trump has struggled to find a consistent line of attack against Biden for much of the year. Republicans have questioned Biden’s physical and mental stamina; they have raised unfounded allegations about his work in Ukraine, and they have attacked his grown son.
GOP strategists believe, however, that the most effective attacks focus on Biden’s liberal policies. And for Friday, at least, Biden’s perceived misstep on fossil fuels gave Trump the opening his party had been looking for.
Perhaps sensing that the comment could soon appear in Trump campaign ads, Biden did his own clean-up before boarding his plane after the debate, declaring, “We’re not going to ban fossil fuels. We’ll get rid of the subsidies of fossil fuels, but not going to get rid of fossil fuels for a long time.”
He did not address his energy policy in his Friday speech.
AP writer Bill Barrow in Atlanta contributed.