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Biden seeks to woo Latinos in 1st trip to Florida as nominee

In a meeting with veterans in Tampa on Tuesday afternoon, Biden tore into President Donald Trump for his reported remarks referring to fallen soldiers as “suckers."

Joe Biden, making his first trip to Florida as the Democratic presidential nominee, on Tuesday sought to build support among Latinos, who could decide the election in one of the nation’s fiercest battleground states.

In a roundtable with veterans in Tampa, Biden tore into President Donald Trump for his reported remarks referring to fallen soldiers as “suckers" and “losers.” Trump has denied making denigrating remarks on veterans, first reported on anonymous sources in The Atlantic, but many of the comments were later confirmed independently by The Associated Press.

“Nowhere are his faults more glaring and more offensive, to me at least, than when it comes to his denigration of our service members, veterans, wounded warriors who have fallen,” Biden said. Speaking of his late son Beau, who served overseas as a Delaware Army National Guard member, the former vice president said, “He’s gone now, but he’s no sucker.”

Later in the day, Biden will hold a Hispanic Heritage Month kickoff event in Kissimmee, near Orlando, as part of an urgent mission to build support among Latinos who could decide the election in one of the nation’s fiercest battleground states.

A win for Biden in Florida would dramatically narrow Trump’s path to reelection. But in a state where elections are often decided by a percentage point, there are mounting concerns that Biden may be slipping, particularly with the state’s influential Latino voters.

An NBC-Marist poll released last week found Latinos in the state about evenly divided between Biden and Trump. Democrat Hillary Clinton led Trump by a 59% to 36% margin among Latinos in the same poll in 2016 — and Trump won Florida by about 1 percentage point.

Credit: AP
Democratic presidential candidate former Vice President Joe Biden speaks during a roundtable discussion with veterans, Tuesday, Sept. 15, 2020, at Hillsborough Community College in Tampa, Fla. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)

At the roundtable with veterans, Biden spoke about his experience as vice president escorting military caskets home and working on military issues, and about his own commitments to strengthen the VA and tackle veterans mental health crisis. And he attacked Trump for what he said were failed promises to veterans.

“President Trump likes to say he passed VA Choice, but just like everything else he seems to say, it’s a figment of his imagination or a flat-out lie,” he said, referencing a program passed under the Obama administration that steers more patients to the private sector.

Biden's trip suggests he isn't taking chances in Florida. He's spending his day along the Interstate 4 corridor, which is often where campaigns are won or lost. While Republicans typically post big numbers in the northern and southwestern parts of the state and Democrats are strong in coastal cities, campaigns typically battle it out for every vote in central Florida.

Biden's decision to celebrate Hispanic Heritage Month in Kissimmee reflects a focus on the state's rapidly growing Puerto Rican community, many of whom relocated to Florida after Hurricane Maria devastated the island of the U.S. territory in 2017.

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To coincide with his visit, the Biden campaign announced a new plan focused on boosting Puerto Rico’s economy and helping the island continue to recover from Maria. Biden would create a federal working group focused on aiding Puerto Rico in rebuilding, and his plan would forgive disaster relief loans to Puerto Rican towns, expand a food stamp program to residents of the island, invest in Puerto Rico’s power and schooling infrastructure and health care services, and help alleviate the territory’s massive debt load.

Biden has not, however, taken a stance on whether Puerto Rico should be given statehood.

Puerto Ricans may be more open to Biden than Cuban Americans concentrated in Miami, who are attuned to Trump's message that the Democratic ticket would embrace socialism.

Indeed, surrogates for the Trump campaign focused on Cuban immigrants during a call with reporters Tuesday ahead of Biden's visit.

Florida Lt. Gov. Jeanette Nunez said a Biden presidency would, among other things, bring a return of the Obama-Biden policy of appeasing Cuba. She said such a policy would enrich the dictatorship in Cuba and continue the oppression of Cuba’s people, though some foreign policy analysts say the tough economic restrictions on Cuba only contribute to the oppression of the Cuban people.

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In the media call arranged by Trump's campaign, Nunez also accused Biden of trying to “feign interest in the Hispanic community” after “neglecting us.”

Biden, who hasn't been to Florida since last October, has struggled with Latinos in part because of the record-setting number of deportations when President Barack Obama was in the White House. Biden has apologized for that policy.

But unlike his Democratic rival Bernie Sanders, who used strong support among Latinos to notch key primary victories in Nevada and California, Biden has refused to adopt the most liberal positions in his party — especially when it comes to calling for decriminalizing illegal crossings of the U.S.-Mexico border and halting all deportations indefinitely. He supports a 100-day moratorium on deportations.

As for Trump, despite many of his anti-immigration policies, some Latino voters have responded positively to the president's embrace of religious conservative positions and his warnings of protest-related violence and socialism. Trump also frequently visits his Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida, and the president votes absentee in the state.

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Jaffe reported from Washington.