Biden Aims to Shore Up Latino Support in First Florida Trip

KISSIMMEE, 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 increasingly Democratic I-4 corridor.

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 stops in Tampa and then in Kissimmee, where he attended a Hispanic Heritage Month event.

His campaign also unveiled a plan focused on supporting Puerto Rico. The rollout came as Mr. Biden has faced urgent calls to shore up his standing with Puerto Rican voters in Florida, a critical constituency, and he described the plan at the heritage event on Tuesday night near Orlando, in a region with a significant Puerto Rican population. He said he believed that statehood “would be the most effective means of ensuring that residents of Puerto Rico are treated equally, with equal representation at a federal level.”

“But the people of Puerto Rico must decide, and the United States federal government must respect and act on that decision,” Mr. Biden went on.

The plan also called 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.

Throughout his remarks, Mr. Biden toggled between celebrating Hispanic Americans and the diversity of the nation, and lashing President Trump’s messaging and policies toward Puerto Rico, casting that approach as callous toward United States citizens.

“Donald Trump doesn’t seem to grasp, doesn’t seem to grasp, that the people of Puerto Rico are American citizens already,” Mr. Biden said. Jabbing at the president’s actions after Hurricane Maria in 2017, he continued, “I’m not going to throw paper towels at people whose lives have just been devastated by a hurricane.”

The event’s participants included the actress Eva Longoria and the singers Ricky Martin and later Luis Fonsi, who, as they spoke from behind socially distanced podiums, urged viewers to vote.

In a nod to Mr. Fonsi’s song “Despacito,” Mr. Biden played a few strains of the hit — apparently from his phone — and bobbed briefly to the beat before launching into his remarks.

“Donald Trump has done nothing but assault the dignity of Hispanic families over and over and over and over again,” Mr. Biden said. “It’s wrong. That’s not who we are.”

Earlier, in Tampa, Mr. Biden made a concerted appeal to veterans and other Americans with ties to the military, as he denounced Mr. Trump over a report in The Atlantic that said Mr. Trump had referred to American soldiers killed in combat as “losers” and “suckers.” The president denies the report.

“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.

“The Hispanic community, Latino community, holds in the palm of their hand the destiny of this country,” Mr. Biden said Tuesday night in Kissimmee. “You may not want to hear it, but it’s true. It’s true. You can decide the direction of this country.”

At another point, he said plainly, “I’m asking for your vote.”

Earlier Tuesday, 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.

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 Kissimmee and 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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