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As presidential race narrows in North Carolina, voters say they want face time with Biden



Debbie George, 61, a yoga instructor in Charlotte, North Carolina, said she “desperately” wants Joe Biden to carry her battleground state and defeat President Donald Trump in the general election.

But from what George, a lifelong Democrat, said she has seen so far, Biden just isn’t doing enough to galvanize support among Democrats and independents to win the state.

“He needs to come. He needs to address North Carolinians. Some kind of socially distanced event, a small conference or roundtable,” she said. “These rehearsed speeches in front of no one are not cutting it.”

George’s concerns underscore the uphill battle Biden appears to have if he wants to win this Southern swing state and its 15 electoral votes in November.

Interviews with a number of North Carolina voters, current and former party officials, political strategists, pollsters and politics watchers paint a picture of a critical battleground that remains within the grasp of an unpopular president, even as the coronavirus continues to ravage the nation’s health and economy and protesters keep up calls for racial justice.

There are factors working in Biden’s favor. He remains extremely popular with the state’s large contingent of Black voters, a group he’ll need to carry with an Obama-era level of enthusiasm to win the state, and the number of absentee ballots (which the state started mailing out Friday) requested by registered Democrats has soared. Polls show he is also performing exceedingly well with women, suburbanites and suburban women (like George) — groups he’ll also need to overwhelmingly carry in order to win.

But to capitalize on those prospects, multiple sources said, he’ll need to do more than run ads and make small speeches streamed from Pennsylvania.

“There’s a worry he needs to be more visible,” Raleigh-based Democratic strategist Gary Pearce said.

A tight race in a hard state for Democratic presidential nominees

North Carolina was always going to be difficult for Biden: Barack Obama’s 2008 victory in the state is the only time a Democratic presidential candidate has carried it in the last 44 years. But given that both North Carolina and national polls show that voters feel Biden would handle the coronavirus pandemic better than Trump, many Democrats have high hopes that Biden can reprise that success.

With the general election entering a pivotal fall stretch, Biden has in recent days increased his travel schedule. After months of holding only virtual rallies and in-person events within a short drive of his home in Wilmington, Delaware, Biden last week delivered a speech in Pittsburgh and traveled to Kenosha, Wisconsin, where he met with the family of Jacob Blake, a Black man who was shot seven times in the back by Kenosha police.

Trump, in contrast, has had a far more robust travel schedule, holding regular visits to battleground states, including numerous stops in North Carolina in recent months.

Recent polling shows the race tightening in the state. The latest polling average kept by FiveThirtyEight shows a virtual tie, with Biden leading Trump by 48.6 percent to 46.8 percent — a smaller lead for Biden than in averages taken by the site of recent polling during the summer.

‘Any one person is an easier opponent than a killer virus’

Possibly boosting Trump, sources said, is the fact that North Carolina voters don’t appear to be as dissatisfied with his response to COVID-19 as voters in other battleground states are.

A Fox News poll released Wednesday showed that 50 percent of likely voters in North Carolina felt Biden would do better handling the pandemic, while 41 percent said they felt that way about Trump. By comparison, Fox News polls of likely voters in Arizona (53 percent vs. 36 percent) and Wisconsin (52 percent vs. 35 percent) released the same day showed far higher levels of confidence in Biden in handling the pandemic.

“The president has suffered a bit of a hit here on coronavirus, but not nearly as big as in other states,” said Michael Bitzer, a politics professor at Catawba College in Salisbury. “I’m not sure that alone puts this state in the presidential race into blue territory.”

Confirmed COVID-19 infections have surged in the state recently, however. North Carolina has had, in the last seven days, the sixth most confirmed cases and the fifth most confirmed deaths from the virus.

Despite the rise, some North Carolina Republicans who remain bullish on its staying red this year said the national visibility for Biden that began during the Democratic National Convention last month may actually help Trump exit what had been a brutal match-up with COVID-19.

“The president has finally started to have an opponent that isn’t the virus,” said Dallas Woodhouse, former executive director of the North Carolina GOP. “Until recently, it’s felt like the president’s opponent was the virus, and that was a very tough environment for him.

“Any one person is an easier opponent than a killer virus,” he added.

A constant presence by Trump and Pence

In addition, the Biden campaign just hasn’t had the physical presence in the state that Trump’s campaign has.

Since July 27, Trump or Vice President Mike Pence have visited the state in person five times — including a surprise visit by both men to the scaled-down Republican National Convention last month — with another trip by Trump to Winston-Salem planned for Tuesday. Donald Trump Jr. is scheduled to hold a Make America Great Again rally Thursday in Hendersonville.

The Trump campaign said it has 120 paid staffers on the ground in North Carolina and has so far made 6 million in-person and virtual voter contacts. The campaign has also blitzed the airwaves in the state with millions of dollars in ads that attack Biden — in many cases misleadingly or inaccurately.

Conversely, the Biden campaign, citing the pandemic, has knocked on zero doors, not just in North Carolina, but all over the U.S. Instead, his campaign said, volunteers have dropped off campaign literature at doors. His campaign, however, said it had held “hundreds” of virtual events targeting the state, had virtually recruited more than 3,000 volunteers there, had made over 3.5 million calls to voters in the state and is working with “hundreds of organizers to engage North Carolinians.” The campaign also pointed to numerous interviews with local television by Biden, as well as key surrogates, as evidence that they’ve had a presence in the state.

The Biden campaign has also saturated North Carolina airwaves with ads — part of its $45 million ad buy in battleground states — in English and Spanish. Some attack Trump for sowing division in the country and highlight his “failures” with Black voters, and some focus on Biden, along with his running mate, Sen. Kamala Harris of California, as being “committed to listening” to Black people and pushing for racial justice. Others promote Biden’s plans to combat the pandemic or feature attacks on Trump’s previous threats to cut Social Security funding.

Several experts, however, said the difference in the on-the-ground approach between the Trump and Biden campaigns was reminiscent of the mistakes the Hillary Clinton campaign made in 2016 in the state and elsewhere.

“In 2016, it didn’t feel like the Clinton campaign took the state seriously, even though they could have really made some inroads and made it a very tight race here,” Bitzer said. “Biden is taking the state seriously, but, like last time, it just doesn’t feel like they have a very strong ground game,” he said, noting that Black turnout in the state dropped significantly in 2016.

Biden, however, may not have the same problem with Black voters, whose high levels of support are critical. Black voters handed Biden decisive victories in the Democratic primaries, but some, including voters interviewed in other battleground states, like Michigan, have strongly urged him not to take their support for granted.

Biden vowed last week to visit North Carolina.

“I promise you, I’m coming,” he told WTVD-TV of Raleigh on Tuesday.

Some positive signs for Biden

An analysis of North Carolina State Board of Elections data conducted by Bitzer showed that, amid an overall enormous rise in requests for absentee ballots, the number of registered Democrats who have already requested absentee ballots for this year’s election is 18 times what it was at the same point in the 2016 race. By comparison, registered unaffiliated requests have multiplied 14 times the 2016 levels, while registered Republicans have made such requests at only five times the 2016 levels.

Critically, his analysis showed that the number of Black voters who have already requested absentee ballots is nearly 30 times what it was at the same point in 2016 (although, as a proportion of the increased overall ballots requested, the current levels for Black voters are closer to twice the 2016 level). A Monmouth University poll of registered North Carolina voters released Thursday showed that 85 percent of Black voters in the state support Biden, compared to 10 percent for Trump.

Bitzer and others said, however, that the exponential increase in absentee ballot requests by voters inclined to support Biden doesn’t guarantee anything.

“There are steps that the voter has to take in order for that ballot to be accepted, and with so many new absentees potentially, that could be a real problem,” he said.

Trump just last week encouraged people in North Carolina to vote twice in the November election, once by mail and once in person, to test the system — escalating his attempts to sow confusion and cast doubt on the validity of the results. (It is illegal to vote more than once in an election.)

But another point favorable to Biden is that, while polls have tightened, Trump has yet to lead him in any polling average tracked by FiveThirtyEight, which has been tracking their head-to-head matchup since Biden emerged as the likely Democratic nominee in March.

Because absentee voting in the state has actually already started (the state began mailing absentee ballots Friday to registered voters who requested them), the current snapshot of the race could have an outsize impact on the final results two months from now.

Other strategists said the frequency with which Trump and Pence have visited the state should be regarded as a major warning sign for Republicans.

“I think the fact that Trump and Pence are here so much tells you that they are worried,” said Pearce, the Democratic strategist. “Biden can win the White House without winning North Carolina. Trump can’t.”

But to do so, Pearce and others emphasized, Biden will need to come and earn the votes himself.

“Doesn’t have to be anything huge,” said Maureen Kelly, an airline company stock clerk in Charlotte who supports Biden. “But his presence here would make a difference.”

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Five things to watch for



CLEVELAND — The first debate of the 2020 presidential election is one of President Donald Trump’s last best chances to shake up a race that Democrat Joe Biden is leading.

The polling has so far seemed largely impervious to news events, with Biden’s lead staying consistent through a pandemic, Supreme Court fight and more, and the president is running out of time to change that dynamic with just five weeks left until Election Day.

The debate is expected to draw an audience of up to 100 million, making it a rare political moment in which the public’s attention will be fixed to the same political event for 90 minutes, largely unfiltered by partisan or ideological media outlets.

Here are five things to watch:

1. Clash of styles

Biden and Trump have, in some ways, been preparing for this moment their entire adult lives — just in very different ways.

Biden spent decades in the Senate, with its rules and reverence, while Trump came up in the world of tabloids and reality TV, with its ruthless irreverence. Biden has cleared his schedule to prepare diligently with binders and mock debate sessions with advisers, while Trump is reported to have proudly eschewed traditional debate prep. He and his advisers say he prepares for the event every day on the job as president and in his frequent and often contentious press conferences.

Trump’s untraditional style was what drew many Americans in the first place, and he’s often mocked stiff-shirted politicians by joking at rallies that he could be presidential — if he wanted to.

But Biden’s camp believes voters are growing tired of the Trump show and the former vice president is hoping to model a more stable, experienced and compassionate alternative to Trump, believing the contrast in styles will speak as loudly as anything either candidate says.

2. Senior moments

Either Trump, 74 or Biden, 77, would be the oldest president in American history on Inauguration Day, Jan. 20, 2021, and both have accused the other of losing a step.

Trump has made an issue of Biden’s verbal flubs and malaprops, with the president and his allies essentially suggesting that the former vice president is in mental decline and can barely string together a coherent sentence without a teleprompter. A major senior moment from Biden could be devastating.

Biden allies have fired back at Trump by making similar, if less pointed, claims, singling out moments such as his unannounced visit to Walter Reed medical center last year. But Trump has been far more visible than Biden in recent months, holding regular campaign rallies and appearing at the White House nearly every day, while Biden has been holding fewer and more virtual events, so it’s been harder for Democrats to sell the idea that Trump is not physically up to the job.

3. New attack lines?

The president has spent the past few months trying out different narratives against Biden, but nothing has seemed to stick.

He went after Biden’s son, Hunter, and the work he did in Ukraine that Trump insists is corrupt and nepotistic, though fact-checkers have undercut those claims. He made Biden’s mental fitness a centerpiece for a while. Then he accused the former vice president of being a “trojan horse” for far-left radicals.

As racial justice protests broke out in the wake of the killing of George Floyd, Trump made law and order the main message of the Republican National Convention. When polling showed that broadside falling flat, Trump accused Biden of being too soft on China.

The Trump campaign released a list of 17 questions Tuesday morning that they say Biden needs to answer during the debate, the first of which was on Hunter Biden.

Campaigns are often most effective when they pick one of attack on an opponent and hammer it incessantly. Will Trump just throw the kitchen sink at Biden? Or will he have something new?

4. Below the belt

Nothing is out of bounds for Trump, especially when his back is against the wall. He brought women who accused Bill Clinton of sexual assault to a debate with Hillary Clinton days after the release of the Access Hollywood tape that recorded Trump joking about grabbing women’s genitalia.

The president is now behind in the polls and faced another bombshell on the eve of the debate when The New York Times obtained his tax information and reported he paid next to nothing in income tax and owes over $400 million in debt.

For his part, Biden has his own temper — especially when his family is attacked, and Democrats have argued about whether he should show restraint or let his righteous indignation fly. While many Democrats would like to see the latter, it would undercut Biden’s desire to contrast with Trump’s style.

“They asked me would I like to debate this gentleman (Trump), and I said no. I said, ‘If we were in high school, I’d take him behind the gym and beat the hell out of him,'” Biden joked to a crowd of college Democrats two years ago.

5. A referendum or a choice?

Biden wants to make the election a referendum on Trump and his handling of the coronavirus crisis. Trump wants to make the election a choice between him and Biden, which gives him a chance to discredit Biden.

Both camps have been trying to bend the election in either direction for months, but this will be the first time the two men will directly confront each other. Trump will try to downplay the COVID crisis and turn attention to Biden’s record, while Biden will try to brush aside those attacks and keep the focus on the person who has power now.

Who will succeed in setting the terms of the debate?

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EU civil war: Merkel's 'good behaviour' clause sparks fury as £670bn COVID fund delayed



THE European Union’s huge coronavirus bailout fund could be hit by devastating delays after capitals clashed on plans to make access to the scheme conditional on good behaviour.

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Jacob Soboroff urges voters to ‘pay attention’ as voting rules continue to change



NBC’s Jacob Soboroff joins TODAY’s Craig Melvin to talk about the role early voting will play in this election. He says it is important to pay attention to the rules of voting in your area because lawsuits across the country are causing shifts that may continue leading up to Election Day.

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