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Biden, Trump Focus On Swing States As November's Election Nears

NOEL KING, HOST:

Twenty-eight million Americans have already voted in the 2020 presidential election - that's according to the U.S. Elections Project. Now, by way of comparison, four years ago, fewer than 6 million people had voted at this point. President Trump and Joe Biden now have two weeks and a day to try and win over people who haven't voted yet. And NPR's Tamara Keith is watching both campaigns.

Good morning, Tam.

TAMARA KEITH, HOST:

Good morning.

KING: So polls have Joe Biden ahead in key swing states and ahead nationwide. How's he trying to keep that advantage?

KEITH: You know, his travel schedule has been pretty low key, certainly compared to President Trump. Yesterday, Biden was in Durham, N.C., for a drive-in rally, which is something he's been doing a lot of recently.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JOE BIDEN: Hello, North Carolina.

KEITH: There are no big rallies where people are crammed together, and that is on purpose. Criticizing President Trump's handling of the coronavirus is a central campaign message for Biden. The other message that he's hitting home at the end here is about unity, saying he wants to be a president for all Americans, which, in part, is about making a pitch to Republicans and independents who may be uncomfortable voting for Trump.

Over the weekend, Biden's campaign manager sent a memo to supporters saying they could still lose the race, even though the numbers look good now. Or in other words, this was a memo that said, hey, guys, don't get complacent.

KING: What about the president? You spent a couple days traveling with President Trump's campaign. How was that?

KEITH: Yeah. So spending time on the campaign trail with President Trump is something of an exercise in cognitive dissonance. He is making dire predictions about a Biden presidency while also joking about losing. He's bringing together these huge crowds of people in the middle of a pandemic. At the same time, he is celebrating that he and his staff have recovered from COVID. He's down in the polls. He's two weeks removed from his hospital stay. And all of this seems to be about projecting this message that he feels good. But there are also hints that President Trump knows his path to victory is even more narrow than it was four years ago.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: I mean, we got to run the table.

KEITH: This was Trump on Friday night at a rally in Macon, Ga. The fact that he's spending precious time campaigning in a state he won by five points last time is just the latest indication that the electoral map has shifted on him. And yet on the surface at least, Trump is campaigning joyfully.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TRUMP: By the way, I have to tell you the spirit in this country is unbelievable. The spirit in these rallies are unbelievable.

KEITH: And so he goes, flying Air Force One from airport rally to airport rally.

Air Force One has landed here in Ocala, Fla. Huge crowd. Very big crowd.

There are thousands of people packed tightly together on the tarmac, very few wearing masks. At these rallies, it's almost as if there isn't a raging pandemic.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TRUMP: No, it's running its course. We're rounding the turn. You see the numbers. We're rounding the turn.

KEITH: The coronavirus has killed 220,000 Americans. Hospitalizations and cases are on the rise. Still, Trump promises it's all going to end soon.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TRUMP: If you vote for me, prosperity will surge. Normal life, that's all we want. We want normal life, right? Normal. We don't want anything - we want - we want to be where we were seven months ago.

KEITH: When talking about accomplishments, Trump focuses on his first three years. When talking about his second-term agenda, which he barely does, Trump says next year will be better.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TRUMP: You know what it's called? Make America Great Again Again.

(CHEERING)

TRUMP: See all those ads? Make America great. Make America Great Again Again. But I don't want to do it a third time, OK?

KEITH: It's almost hard to find his message. It's in there, but he's constantly distracting from it. Trump's speeches run about 90 minutes. The prepared remarks are short, but he goes off on riffs and sidetracks, the sort of greatest hits his fans are there for. And as always, Trump boasts about his crowd size, mocking Biden for holding socially distant events.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TRUMP: And the mask is always so large. You know, it's like - covers the whole face.

(LAUGHTER)

TRUMP: I shouldn't joke. I shouldn't joke. Because you know what? Running against the worst candidate in the history of presidential politics puts pressure on me.

KEITH: Even when he lets on that his campaign could be in trouble, it's all a big joke.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TRUMP: Could you imagine if I lose? My whole life - what am I going to do?

(LAUGHTER)

TRUMP: I'm going to say, I lost to the worst candidate in the history of politics. I'm not going to feel so good. Maybe I'll have to leave the country. I don't know.

(LAUGHTER)

KEITH: Heading into this final stretch, Trump's campaign is at a major cash disadvantage, getting massively outspent on the air. He's running to hang on to the states he won four years ago. But when his rallies end and the Village People's "YMCA" blasts through the sound system, Trump dances his way offstage.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "YMCA")

VILLAGE PEOPLE: (Singing) There's no need to be unhappy.

KING: And you were there to see it all in person. Let me ask you something. We heard President Trump in that tape going after Joe Biden again and again and again. It seems like the Biden campaign is trying to avoid responding to everything that the president says, right?

KEITH: Yeah. They've been like that throughout the campaign, but especially now as President Trump is spending an increasing amount of time in his rallies attacking Biden and his son Hunter. The Biden campaign simply isn't engaging. But when it comes to coronavirus, Biden is all over it. So remember when Trump said coronavirus has turned the corner? Well, at his socially distant drive-in rally in North Carolina yesterday, Biden brought it up.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BIDEN: My grandfather would say, this guy's gone around the bend if he thinks we turned the corner.

(SOUNDBITE OF CAR HORNS HONKING)

BIDEN: Turned the corner? Things are getting worse. He continues to lie to us about the circumstances.

KEITH: So the coronaviruses set to be a topic in Thursday night's debate. It is the one big event left on the calendar that could change the trajectory of this race. But as you mentioned earlier, tens of millions of people will have voted by then.

KING: White House correspondent Tamara Keith. Thanks, Tam.

KEITH: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.