Biden, in First Florida Trip as Nominee, Aims to Shore Up Latino Support

TAMPA, Fla. — Joseph R. Biden Jr. on Tuesday made his first trip to Florida as the Democratic presidential nominee, facing a tight race in the state and a challenge consolidating support among its Latino voters that he moved to address as he campaigned along the I-4 corridor, historically home to many swing voters.

Against a backdrop of polls that showed Mr. Biden both cutting into traditional Republican constituencies and sometimes underperforming Hillary Clinton’s 2016 showing with Latino voters in Florida, he sought to engage a broad range of voters with a stop in Tampa and, later, an expected stop in Kissimmee.

His campaign also unveiled a plan aimed at supporting Puerto Rico, which comes as Mr. Biden has faced urgent calls to shore up his standing with Puerto Rican voters in Florida, a critical constituency.

The plan goes beyond the issue of Puerto Rican statehood — Mr. Biden would defer to any decision made by the people of Puerto Rico, aides said. It also calls for accelerated access to reconstruction funding, investments in Puerto Rican infrastructure after devastating hurricanes, expanded health care and nutrition assistance, and efforts to “reduce its unsustainable debt burden,” among other proposals.

Mr. Biden planned to attend a Hispanic Heritage Month event on Tuesday evening in Kissimmee, near Orlando, a region that is home to a significant Puerto Rican population. But he started the campaign swing with a veterans-focused event at a community college in Tampa.

There, the Democratic nominee denounced President Trump over a report in The Atlantic that said Mr. Trump had referred to American soldiers killed in combat as “losers” and “suckers” and had repeatedly been dismissive of military service at other points in his presidency.

“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,” Mr. Biden said.

His remarks came as a new poll from Monmouth University found that Mr. Trump maintained only a small edge over Mr. Biden with voters from military and veteran households in Florida — typically a staunchly Republican constituency. The poll also found Mr. Biden ahead of Mr. Trump by 58 percent to 32 percent among Latino voters, though other surveys have suggested a much narrower race, to the alarm of some Democrats.

Competing clusters of Trump and Biden supporters stood outside the Tampa event, near the entrance to Hillsborough Community College, where Mr. Biden spoke. Each candidate’s groups included supporters wearing “Latinos for Trump” clothing or holding “Latinos for Biden” signs, underscoring the importance of the constituency in this diverse and fiercely contested battleground.

ImageSupporters of Mr. Biden, including some who said they were former Republicans, gathered outside Hillsborough Community College in Tampa. 
Credit…Eve Edelheit for The New York Times

While Mr. Trump’s contingent outnumbered Mr. Biden’s by about two to one, supporters of the former vice president managed to assemble a loud, honking caravan — about a dozen cars strong — that included a sound truck blaring an assortment of “Viva Biden” messages.

Mercedes Figueruell, a Cuban-American Trump supporter, was not swayed.

“Listen, he’s a jerk and says things that I don’t like and don’t approve of,” she said of the president whom she plans to support.

But she expressed concern that more Democrats seemed to have grown accepting of socialism.

“This is an issue that is very powerful to a lot of Latino voters, especially those of us that came from socialist or communist countries,” she said. “We’re starting to see it brewing in the Democratic Party.”

Republicans have sought to paint Mr. Biden as a radical, and there are some signs that the message may connect with a slice of the Latino population in Florida, in particular with more conservative Cuban-Americans. Mr. Biden, who has long been a relative moderate focused on bipartisan consensus-building and who opposes defunding the police, said incredulously in one recent speech, “Do I look like a radical socialist with a soft spot for rioters?”

Supporters on both sides are quick to point out that “Latino voters” are hardly a monolithic group.

On Tuesday, there was a wide variance in political views across age, class, geography and country of origin. Four people interviewed said that they were former Republicans and that Mr. Trump had scared them out of the party, largely over immigration policies that they described as cruel. Likewise, two supporters of Mr. Trump said they used to be Democrats, but now liked the incumbent — mainly because of what one called his “no-nonsense” approach to immigration.

“For most Latino voters, health care and the economy are more important than immigration,” said Marco Delgado of Tampa, who voted twice for George W. Bush and plans to support Mr. Biden. He also mentioned Mr. Trump’s response to the coronavirus crisis as a big factor in considering how to vote.

“You ask him about Covid-19 and he gives you an answer about the stock market,” Mr. Delgado said. “To me that says all you need to know, no matter where you come from.”

Inside the event, Mr. Biden hosted a round-table meeting with veterans that touched on a wide range of issues, including Social Security, health care, systemic racism, racial disparities in the impact of the coronavirus crisis, and the environment.

“I can guarantee you, if I’m president, there will be no offshore drilling,” he said, calling for “basically a permanent moratorium” as he discussed the practice in Florida.

He also spoke about the challenges facing veterans and military families, including mental health and child care concerns. Mr. Biden, whose son, Beau Biden, deployed to Iraq with the Delaware Army National Guard before later dying of brain cancer, also suggested that Mr. Trump paid lip service at best to veterans.

“Our military is the greatest fighting force in the history of the world, and that’s not hyperbole,” he said, adding that it “deserves a commander in chief who respects their sacrifice, understands their service and will never betray the values they defend.”

Mark Leibovich reported from Tampa, and Katie Glueck from New York. Patricia Mazzei contributed reporting from Miami, and Isabella Grullón Paz and Nick Corasaniti from New York.

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