Al Drago, Reuters

Early voting begins in four states as Biden challenges Trump on economy in Minnesota face-off

By Jarrett Renshaw and Steve Holland, Reuters | Updated - Sep. 18, 2020 at 7:43 p.m. | Posted - Sep. 18, 2020 at 7:26 p.m.



BEMIDJI/HERMANTOWN, Minn. (Reuters) — Democratic U.S. presidential candidate Joe Biden criticized President Donald Trump's handling of the U.S. economy on Friday as the two rivals campaigned in the election battleground state of Minnesota, one of four states where early voting was getting underway.

The two candidates were in Minnesota on the first day of early voting in the state, a reminder that voting in the election already has begun as voters opt to cast ballots early or by mail during the pandemic. Voters in Virginia, South Dakota and Wyoming also began casting in-person ballots on Friday.

Trump trails Biden in national opinion polls ahead of the Nov. 3 election, but is trying to make up ground in Minnesota, a state he lost by about 1.5 percentage points to Democrat Hillary Clinton in 2016.

Biden toured a union carpenter training center in Hermantown, a suburb of the Lake Superior port city of Duluth, and painted a grim picture of the economic situation in Minnesota's iron ore mining region, saying the coronavirus pandemic has driven up joblessness.

The former U.S. vice president blamed Trump for the sustained economic downturn, saying the Republican president has done little to contain the public health crisis. "Trump has given up on even pretending to do his job," Biden said.

Trump spoke to thousands of people gathered outside an airport hangar in Bemidji, Minnesota, on Friday evening. He would win Minnesota thanks to his economic record, Trump said, pointing to the strength of Minnesota's economy in 2019, before the coronavirus struck.

Laleh Daftarian, 6, plays with a balloon as she waits with her parents, Steven and Nataliia, in a socially distant line at an early voting site at the Fairfax County Government Center in Fairfax, Virginia, U.S., September 18, 2020. (Photo: Al Drago, Reuters)

Trump also attacked what he said were Biden's policies on refugees. "Good luck, Minnesota," he said. "Your state will be overrun and destroyed if Biden and the radical left win."

Trump keeps promising an infrastructure plan, but one never materializes, Biden said.

"He has no plan," Biden added.

Biden repeated a pledge to invest $2 trillion on U.S. infrastructure improvements while tackling climate change. Biden also said he would make sure all federal projects use American-made materials and union labor.

Recent opinion polls have given Biden a comfortable lead in Minnesota. The poll-tracking website RealClearPolitics showed Biden up by an average of 10.2 percentage points as of Friday.

In Virginia, elections officials in Fairfax and Arlington counties in the Washington suburbs reported heavy turnout, with lines out the door.

In Minneapolis, some 44 people cast ballots in the first 30 minutes that the city's lone polling center was open. Some said they were anxious to get an early jump on the process, or to avoid potential crowds on Election Day.

The pandemic has sharply curtailed both candidates' campaign travel and is expected to bring a surge of early and mail voting as Americans seek to reduce their exposure to crowds.

"I just wanted to come get it done," said Jason Miller, 33, a painter who was in line before the site opened to cast a vote for Biden.

Miller said he could not wait to cast a vote against Trump.

"I was a little inspired to come here the first day," Miller said. "In fact, probably 3½ years ago I thought I would be here the first day I could."

All of the voters lined up in Minneapolis wore masks to help protect against the spread of the novel coronavirus.

Margie Rukavina, 72, said she was "revved up" to vote for Biden but also expressed worry about voting on Election Day given health concerns.

"We want to come early to avoid a super-spreader event, like our president is so happy to do," Rukavina said.

Trump has been criticized for holding crowded campaign rallies, often with many people not wearing masks.

'RUST BELT' STATES

Biden's polling advantage underscores the extent to which the current electoral map appears to favor him. He leads in all three former industrial "Rust Belt" states that Trump flipped from the Democratic column on his way to victory in 2016: Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania.

Minnesota was the flashpoint for a national reckoning on race relations, when George Floyd, a Black man, died after a white Minneapolis policeman kneeled on his neck for about nine minutes even after he appeared to lose consciousness.

Floyd's death sparked protests against racism and police brutality in many cities, with civil unrest lasting in some places for months, and further rattled a nation already besieged by the coronavirus pandemic, which has killed nearly 200,000 Americans and thrown millions of people out of work.

Trump has responded to the demonstrations by vowing to establish "law and order" while broadly portraying protesters as far-left radicals who would be further empowered by a Biden victory.

Biden has denounced the violence that has flared in some cities while expressing support for the protesters' objections to racism and police brutality. Biden has blamed Trump's divisive rhetoric for inflaming the situation.

(Reporting by Julio-Cesar Chavez in Minneapolis, Jarrett Renshaw in Hermantown, Steve Holland in Bemidji, and Joseph Ax in Princeton, New Jersey, Writing by John Whitesides and Simon Lewis; Editing by Scott Malone, Jonathan Oatis, Will Dunham and Daniel Wallis)

Jarrett Renshaw
    Steve Holland
      Reuters

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