Biden uses virtual events to target battleground Florida

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Democratic presidential candidate former Vice President Joe Biden speaks to members of the press at the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia, Tuesday, March 10, 2020. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

WASHINGTON (AP) — Joe Biden is back on the campaign trail, targeting the critical battleground state of Florida — but without actually leaving home.

The presumptive Democratic presidential nominee is staying in his Delaware house amid efforts to slow the spread of the coronavirus, which has shut down most aspects of American life, including the presidential campaign. But he held a virtual roundtable on Thursday with more than a dozen African American leaders in Jacksonville, including Rep. Al Lawson.

“It’s great to be in Jacksonville today,” Biden said, grinning. “I’m anxious to get down in person to campaign.”

Later, Biden was holding an online rally with voters in Tampa set to feature many of the fixtures of an in-person appearance.

His virtual stops marked one of the first times Biden has tried to emulate a traditional campaign swing through a key state since locking up the Democratic primary nearly a month ago. In previous weeks he used a makeshift studio in a rec room in his basement to hold online fundraisers and discussions with top Democrats, but he faces mounting pressures and concerns from Democrats wary about President Donald Trump’s dominant presence on social media and across traditional news outlets.

“I’m going to need you if we win in November,” Biden told roundtable participants. He promised to reinvigorate the economy in a way that could reduce economic inequality, adding, “I’m going to need you to rebuild the backbone of this country but bring along everyone this time.”

Biden’s evolving online campaign will continue Friday with an exclusive appearance on NowThis, a video-heavy news outlet that boasts a monthly audience that includes 60% of Americans in their 20s by distributing content across platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat and TikTok. Biden, according to NowThis, will preview his central economic pitch for the general election.

The back-to-back virtual campaign days reflect the Biden campaign’s effort both to approximate traditional moves, like town halls that the former vice president would have held across a dozen battleground states during a normal fall campaign, with a new approach like the NowThis platform, which can connect the 77-year-old candidate to a swath of younger voters whom he’s largely failed to excite so far.

The Florida offensive, meanwhile, also comes as Trump’s campaign has stepped up its efforts to portray the former vice president as soft on China. It released an online video Thursday that included clips of Biden previously describing that country as “not bad folks” and saying economic growth there was in the U.S. interest. The Trump administration also is making ever louder pronouncements casting blame on China for the coronavirus pandemic, aiming to defuse increasingly sharp domestic criticism of the president’s own response.

Biden said the virus has disproportionately affected minority communities, often because they have inadequate access to health care. He said it is “shining a very bright light on” institutional racism.

The former vice president was also asked about his promises to build on the Obama administration’s signature health law — rather than embrace universal insurance coverage under the “Medicare for All” program that dominated debate during the Democratic primary. Biden noted that he was working with Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders and other top progressives to find ways to expand health care coverage, but to do so in ways that wouldn’t require so much additional government spending.

“For everyone who backed Medicare for All, join us,” he said.

Trump won Florida by only about 1 percentage point over Hillary Clinton in 2016, but his showing there was a harbinger of the strong election night he was to have. While still a tossup, Florida has begun to lean Republican by narrow margins in recent key races, including Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis’ win over Democrat Andrew Gillum by only about 33,000 votes in 2018.

Also during the roundtable, Biden spoke about the slaying of Ahmaud Arbery, a black man in Georgia who was pursued by two armed white men while he was jogging and was shot. The killing happened in February but has sparked a renewed outcrynow that cellphone video has surfaced. Biden decried Arbery’s “brutal murder,” saying he was “in a sense lynched before our very eyes.”

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Associated Press writer Bill Barrow contributed to this report from Atlanta.

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