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Coronavirus again dominates campaign as Trump struggles to regain political ground

The president and Democrat Joe Biden on Tuesday promoted their very different approaches to battling the virus — and handling the presidency.

President Trump’s hospitalization has returned the coronavirus to the forefront of the presidential campaign, with he and Democrat Joe Biden on Tuesday promoting their dramatically divergent views on how to handle the deadly pandemic and how to approach the presidency.

In the face of polls that showed a hardening of the presidential contest in Biden’s favor and suggested broadening paths for victory for the former vice president, Trump stuck with a months-old message that has found wide support among his loyalists but has turned off other voters he needs to secure a second term.

Even as a coronavirus outbreak extended deeper into his White House staff, Trump continued to play down its deadly nature and, while currently infectious, vowed to attend next week’s second debate with Biden. Defying medical experts, he also insisted that the seasonal flu was far more dangerous, and he tweeted that he was “FEELING GREAT!”

“Are we going to close down our Country?” he tweeted of the flu. “No, we have learned to live with it, just like we are learning to live with Covid, in most populations far less lethal!!!”

In a Twitter blast Tuesday afternoon, Trump halted talks with congressional Democrats over a stimulus plan aimed at helping millions who are unemployed as a result of the economic wreckage of the coronavirus. While Trump insisted the plan would wrongly benefit Democrats, his blunt cancellation sent stocks tumbling and raised questions about the future of millions already unemployed, tens of thousands of workers who could soon be laid off and businesses that could soon be shuttered.

The general-election battle between Trump and Biden, stilled somewhat during Trump’s hospitalization, flared anew late Monday after the president returned from Walter Reed National Military Medical Center and, as his first act upon reaching the White House, removed his mask and posed for photographs and videos in proximity to other unmasked aides.

Hours later, Biden’s campaign posted a split-screen video of Trump’s mask removal and the Democratic nominee donning one. “Masks matter. They save lives,” the caption read on Twitter. As of Tuesday afternoon, the three-second video clip had been viewed more than 8 million times.

In contrast with Trump, Biden has repeatedly counseled the use of masks and social distancing, tactics he urged again Tuesday in a speech in Gettysburg, Pa., where he condemned Trump’s efforts to sow conflict and expressed optimism that unity would get the country through the pandemic.

“There’s no more fitting place than here today in Gettysburg to talk about the cost of division,” Biden said from the Civil War battlefield site.

While acknowledging “the country is in a dangerous place” and “what we’re experiencing today is neither good nor normal,” Biden urged the nation to “revive the spirit of bipartisanship.”

He also implored Americans, regardless of party, to do more to combat the coronavirus and to heed experts, casting it as each person’s patriotic duty.

“Wearing a mask is not a political statement — it’s a scientific recommendation,” Biden said. “Social distancing is not a political statement — it is a scientific recommendation.”

In a direct rebuttal of Trump’s recent rhetoric, Biden added: “The pandemic isn’t a red- or blue-state issue. It affects us all and can take anyone’s life. It’s a virus. It’s not a political weapon.”

Events in the past week — which encompassed the first presidential debate, Trump’s diagnosis and his trips in and out of the hospital — seemed to have accrued to Biden’s benefit.

New polling indicated that Biden is extending his lead nationally and in key battleground states, with voters turned off by Trump’s combative debate style, worried that he is not doing enough to combat the pandemic and saying that they prefer Biden’s milder temperament.

The week also brought a dramatic shift in campaign resources, with the Biden campaign injecting $8 million in new ads into key states — with half of that money going into Florida, Arizona and Texas, three states Trump won in 2016. The Lincoln Project, an anti-Trump group, is pumping an additional $1 million into Texas. Trump’s campaign, meanwhile, cut more than $4 million in ad spending, the bulk of it from Ohio and Minnesota, according to data from Advertising Analytics. Trump easily won Ohio and narrowly lost Minnesota in 2016, but polls have Ohio tied and Biden leading in Minnesota.

In interviews this week, Biden campaign advisers expressed eagerness to emphasize the contrast between the former vice president’s careful adherence to public health guidelines and Trump’s disregard for safety precautions.

One Biden adviser said the plan was for the Democrat to be a “walking PSA” for taking precautions against the virus. He almost always wears a mask until he is distanced from others. As he fielded questions from reporters in Delaware on Monday, Biden’s wife, Jill, pulled him back out of concern that he was getting too close.

John Morgan, a Florida trial lawyer and major Biden donor, said the events of recent days have revealed a glaring difference between Trump and Biden that plays to the Democrat’s favor.

“Sanity and security — that’s what he’s offering America,” Morgan said of Biden. “And this episode shows the insanity and the insecurity that America…

Matt Viser, Sean Sullivan

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