MANITOWOC, Wis./DAYTON, Ohio (Reuters) – Democrat Joe Biden slammed U.S. President Donald Trump’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic and Trump criticized Biden’s record on trade on Monday as the White House contenders battled for votes in key Midwestern battleground states.
With U.S. deaths from COVID-19 approaching 200,000, Biden said on a campaign stop in Wisconsin that Trump “froze” when faced with the enormous challenge posed by the health crisis and was not capable of the leadership needed to confront it.
“He just wasn’t up to it. He froze. He failed to act. He panicked,” Biden said after meeting workers at an aluminum manufacturing plant in Manitowoc, south of Green Bay.
Biden, who is trying to win back Wisconsin after Trump carried it narrowly in 2016, made a direct appeal to blue-collar voters who supported President Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012 but shifted to Trump.
“The simple truth is that Donald Trump ran for office saying he would represent the forgotten men and women of this country – and then once in office, he forgot them,” Biden said.
In Ohio, Trump criticized Biden’s past support for free-trade deals that he said had cost the state jobs and hurt the economy in the upper Midwest.
“Joe Biden should not be asking for your support. He should be begging for your forgiveness,” Trump said.
He criticized Biden’s past support for the North American Free Trade Agreement, which has been replaced by a new pact under Trump, and the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which Trump withdrew from in 2017 after he took office.
“He betrayed you, he lied to you, he abused you. Which is why it’s time to retire Joe Biden,” he said.
The two candidates’ speeches marked a return to the themes that dominated the race before the death on Friday of liberal Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, which has shifted the focus to the coming battle over confirming her replacement.
Trump is moving quickly to fill Ginsburg’s seat in hopes of cementing a 6-3 conservative majority on the court, a key priority for social conservatives, before the Nov. 3 election.
The rallies were also a reminder of the importance of the two battleground states. Polls show Biden leading by several points in Wisconsin, mirroring his overall lead nationwide, and Trump ahead in Ohio, which he won by 8 percentage points in 2016.
A new Reuters/Ipsos poll on Monday showed Biden leading Trump among likely voters in Wisconsin, while the two are about even in Pennsylvania, another battleground state.
Biden said in Wisconsin that Trump could have saved lives with a mask mandate but continued to hold rallies without social distancing or people wearing masks, and worried too much about spooking financial markets.
‘KEEPS HIS DISTANCE’
“He loves his rallies. But the next time he holds one, look closely. Trump keeps his distance,” he said. “He’s willing to let everyone in that crowd risk their life. But not him.”
In his last visit to the state, Biden spoke with Jacob Blake, the Black man whose shooting by police in the city of Kenosha prompted unrest.
This time, he visited largely white Manitowoc County, which supported the former vice president and President Barack Obama when they ran on the Democratic ticket in 2008.
The county backed Trump in 2016, helping deliver the state to a Republican presidential candidate for the first time since 1984, albeit with less than 1% of the vote.
Trump visited Wisconsin last week, announcing a new round of coronavirus pandemic assistance to farmers of about $13 billion.
Biden has built a formidable financial advantage for the campaign’s final stretch after a massive fundraising haul in August. The campaign and its party allies will report having $466 million in cash at the end of August, while Trump’s war chest stood at $325 million, according to officials from both sides.
Early voting, both in-person and by mail, has already begun in a handful of states.
In Ohio, Trump returned to many of the economic themes that dominated his re-election pitch prior to Ginsburg’s death. He promised the economy would bounce back strongly as the pandemic fades, and criticized Biden’s free-trade views.
“If Biden wins, China wins. If we win, Ohio wins,” he said at an election rally at the Dayton airport, the first of two appearances in the state.
Earlier in the race, many Democrats had privately written Ohio off, seeing it as firmly in Trump’s grasp. But polls show a tight contest, and Biden’s campaign is now pursuing wins in an expanded set of states.
On Monday, Biden’s campaign said it would add Republican-leaning Georgia and Iowa, both won easily by Trump in 2016 but also home to competitive U.S. Senate races, to a list of 10 other states where it is running paid advertisements.
(Reporting by Trevor Hunnicutt and Jeff Mason, additional reporting by Joseph Ax and Andrea Shalal; Writing by John Whitesides; Editing by Scott Malone, Andrea Ricci and Sonya Hepinstall)