Voters face a dramatic choice in five days
Donald Trump and Joe Biden dueled Thursday over the crucial state of Florida, painting radically different visions of the United States as big new GDP figures showed an improving economy even as Covid-19 infections reached record highs.
With Trump touting an early end to the health crisis, while warning of rampaging "socialists," and Biden slamming the US president as irresponsible and vowing to heal America's "soul," voters face a dramatic choice in five days.
Trump, 74, held another raucous rally in Tampa, telling the cheering crowd that coronavirus lockdowns under Biden would banish normal life.
"They will allow you nothing," the Republican said.
"We're never going to lock down again.... We're open for business," he said, telling supporters that his own recent bout with Covid-19 proved that it can be beaten.
"You know, the bottom line is you get better," he said.
But the pandemic, which has already taken 228,000 American lives, has shown its resilience and is undergoing a long-predicted second wave.
On Thursday more than 91,000 new US infections were recorded, according to a Johns Hopkins University tally, the highest 24-hour total since the pandemic began.
Despite the grim milestone, Trump – trailing in the polls and with a stunning 81 million Americans already casting their ballots early -- is counting on economic recovery and fear-mongering about Democrats turning the nation into a leftist failed state to outweigh Biden's health message for remaining voters.
He got good news on that score Thursday with new figures showing an annual growth rate of 33.1% in the third quarter – a jaw-dropping statistic that reflects the economy's rebound from such a low base.
But elect Biden, Trump told the Florida crowd, and they will face "rioters and flag burners and the leftwing extremists."
In a bid to soften the president's abrasive image – beloved by his base but a turn-off to swing voters -- he was introduced at the rally by First Lady Melania Trump, who said her husband shows Americans that "we are a country of hope, not a country of fear or weakness."
Biden, addressing a socially distanced drive-in event in Broward County, reminded supporters that of all the states there are few as important as Florida in deciding the outcome of tight elections.
"You hold the key. If Florida goes blue, it's over!" the 77-year-old told honking supporters before holding a similar event in Tampa hours after Trump's rally.
Rebuffing Trump's central charge, Biden emphasized his claim that he would bring responsible leadership after months of the White House downplaying the virus' danger.
"I'm not going to shut down the economy, I'm not going to shut down the country. I'm going to shut down the virus," he said in Tampa, just hours after Trump's appearance where attendees ignored social distancing guidelines and many did not wear masks.
While Trump mocks him for holding small campaign events, Biden said he was leading by example, instead of staging the president's "super-spreader" events.
"He's spreading more than just coronavirus; he's spreading division and discord. We need a president who's going to bring us together, not pull us apart," he said.
"The heart and soul of this country is at stake."
Both candidates will be barnstorming swing states in the final sprint to Tuesday.
Vice President Mike Pence and Biden's running mate Kamala Harris are also criss-crossing the nation, to battlegrounds like Nevada, Arizona, Wisconsin, Michigan and all-important Pennsylvania.
Trump sets the pace with a frenetic schedule, but Biden's strikingly quiet campaign is also revving up.
After Florida, Trump flew to Fort Bragg in North Carolina for a meeting with troops. A planned rally in the toss-up state was postponed until Monday due to the weather, the campaign said.
Mother nature intruded on Biden's Tampa rally too, as a heavy downpour forced him to cut his remarks short.
Trump defeated Hillary Clinton in Florida in 2016 but an NBC News/Marist poll released Thursday had Biden with a 51-47 point lead here.
A new Quinnipiac poll had Biden ahead 45-42 in Florida, with a close race in Iowa, but Biden maintaining a slightly larger lead in Pennsylvania and also topping Trump in Ohio.
In Florida, the Marist poll showed Biden had a commanding lead among Black voters (84-14), women (57-41) and independents (55-41) and was also favored by seniors (53-46), who make up a large proportion of the voters in the Sunshine State.
Mary Ann Gouveia, a 55-year-old neonatal nurse practitioner, said she favors Biden because she wants "commonsense" gun legislation.
But she looks back at 2016, when Clinton "was going to win and she didn't," and gets nervous.
"I'm not confident whatsoever," despite canvassing, phone-banking and texting for Biden, she told AFP at his rally.
"I've been doing that for several months now, and I'm not stopping until the day of the election."