US President Donald Trump, who was confined in a hospital and the White House for 10 days due to COVID-19 hit the campaign trail on Monday addressing his supporters in the battleground state of Florida nearly three weeks until he faces Democratic candidate Joe Biden in the election.
“I went through it and now they say I’m immune,” Trump told a cheering crowd in Sanford, near Orlando, few of whom wore masks.
“I feel so powerful. I’ll walk in there, I’ll kiss everyone in that audience. I’ll kiss the guys and the beautiful women, just give you a big fat kiss.”
Trump’s medical team announced he had tested negative and was no longer contagious as he flew to Florida – the first of four battleground states he plans to visit over the next four days. His claim of immunity, however, is unproven.
Trump has faced mounting criticism over his handling of the coronavirus, which has killed 214,000 people in the United States and infected nearly eight million. He has also been faulted for downplaying the threat from the pandemic and failing to encourage supporters at campaign events and even White House staff, to wear protective masks and abide by social-distancing guidelines.
At least 11 close Trump aides have tested positive for the coronavirus, which has become one of the main poll issues in the November 3 elections, along with economy and race.
Trailing his Democratic challenger by double digits in the polls, Trump is seeking to rally his base on a blitz of key swing states.
In rare form just a week after his release from hospital, Trump’s hour-long speech called on all of his campaign classics: vicious attacks against “Crooked Hillary” Clinton and the “corrupt” press, alarmist warnings against the “radical left” and the “socialist nightmare.” Clinton was runner-up in the last presidential election.
Trump also mocked his opponent, whom he has nicknamed “Sleepy Joe,” saying that “practically nobody showed up” to Biden’s campaign event.
Unlike Trump, Biden has been following public health guidelines during the pandemic, hosting socially distanced campaign events that sharply contrast with Trump’s packed, largely maskless extravaganzas – including a recent celebration at the White House described by experts as a “superspreader.”
“Oh, do I like Florida,” Trump told the crowd. The state could play a crucial role on November 3.
The president brushed aside poll numbers, saying: “Four years ago we had the same thing. We are going to lose Florida, they said four years ago.”
“Twenty-two days from now, we are going to win this state, we are going to win four more years in the White House!” he added.
“These rallies generally are his base,” Aaron Kall, director of debate at the University of Michigan, told Al Jazeera.
“People that are predisposed to vote for him likely voted for him in 2016. But in order to win the re-election he’s going to have to reach out further than that, to moderate independent voters, maybe to people who voted for Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012 and were disaffected.”
Trump also lauded his nominee for Supreme Court justice, Amy Coney Barrett.
The Republican-controlled Senate will begin hearings for the 48-year-old judge, whose confirmation – over which there is little doubt – will shift the nation’s highest court firmly to the right, possibly for generations.
“She’s going to be a fantastic US Supreme Court Justice,” Trump said.
Before Trump, 74, left for Florida, his physician Dr Sean Conley said the president was now negative and no longer “infectious to others” – following consecutive rapid tests and taking into account a number of other health metrics.
Patients are normally classed as negative only after taking the more sensitive PCR test – drawing suspicion from experts on social media that Trump’s doctors had administered these but had not received the results they were looking for.
Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden speaks to members of the media before boarding his campaign plane at New Castle Airport, in New Castle, Delaware en route to Ohio [Carolyn Kaster/AP] Biden, meanwhile, attacked the president ahead of the rally for playing down the threat of the virus early in the pandemic.
“Trump knew how dangerous the disease was but did nothing,” Biden said ahead of the rally. “Why didn’t he tell us? Why didn’t he warn us?”
“His reckless personal conduct since his diagnosis has been unconscionable,” Biden added. “The longer Donald Trump is president, the more reckless he seems to get.”
Biden specifically attacked Trump’s planned Florida visit, saying he was bringing nothing but “divisive rhetoric, and fear-mongering” to the Sunshine State.
“But, equally dangerous is what he fails to bring: no plan to get this virus that has taken the lives of over 15,000 Floridians under control,” Biden said.
The president is also to visit Pennsylvania, Iowa and North Carolina this week as part of a push to make up ground on Biden, who has a double-digit lead in the national polls according to the RealClearPolitics website.
Trump won Florida, Pennsylvania, Iowa and North Carolina – the four states he is visiting this week – in 2016 against Clinton but is trailing Biden in all four this time around, according to a RealClearPolitics average of state polls.
Biden has, however, razor-thin leads in Iowa and North Carolina, according to RealClearPolitics, but is leading by more substantial margins in Florida and Pennsylvania – 3.7 points and 7.1 points, respectively.
Early in-person voting began on Monday in another close state, Georgia, although pictures of hours-long lines that went viral on social media led to accusations of “voter suppression.”
More than 10 million Americans have already cast their ballots in the US presidential contest, a tracking group said late Monday, a record pace three weeks before election day.