WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump told seniors in Florida that he's "moving heaven and earth" to safeguard them from the coronavirus, as polls show older voters moving toward Democrat Joe Biden.
"I will protect you, I will defend you, and I will fight for you with every ounce of energy and conviction that I have," Trump said Friday at an event aimed at elderly voters in Fort Myers, Florida.
He also promised that "seniors will be the first in line for the vaccine and we will soon end the pandemic." Trump's comments came even as virus cases spiked in several parts of the country, and amid uncertainty about when a vaccine will be available.
Recent polls show the president trailing Biden by wide margins nationally and more narrowly in many battleground states, including Florida. Voters are signaling increasing distrust over Trump's handling of the virus, which has killed more than 217,000 Americans and infected millions. Elderly Americans have been particularly vulnerable to COVID-19.
Biden holds a lead of less than two percentage points in Florida, according to an average of polls by RealClearPolitics. Trump won the state in 2016 by about 1.2 percentage points.
Trump, who says he's fully recovered from his own bout with COVID-19, held Friday's event for hundreds of senior citizens indoors, despite recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to prioritize outdoor activities and avoid large crowds. The White House called the event "remarks on protecting America's seniors."
Before Trump arrived, an announcer asked audience members to maintain social distance and wear masks. Even so, many wore no face coverings.
The gathering took place in a swing state with a disproportionate number of seniors. Florida has the third-highest total of coronavirus cases in the country, behind California and Texas, and its governor, Republican Ron DeSantis, is a Trump ally who aggressively reopened the state's economy after a shutdown earlier this year.
"Since the beginning, our nation's seniors have been my top priority," Trump said.
He said they'd soon be able to hug and kiss their grandchildren even though there's no indication the virus will quickly go away as the president predicted.
Trump claimed Democrats want to "delay the vaccine, delay therapies, and prolong the pandemic," which he said would cost thousands of lives. Biden has disputed similar comments from Trump, and says he doesn't trust the administration's ability to shield the vaccine development and distribution from politics.
Trump also touted a plan for CVS Health Corp. and Walgreens Boots Alliance Inc. to give free COVID-19 vaccines to residents and employees of long-term care facilities, once they're available.
Trump made some traditional appeals to seniors, including promises not to change Social Security or Medicare benefits as long as he's president, and warned that Democrats' health plans would "destroy" Medicare.
Many Democrats would like to expand Medicare, the government health program for the elderly and disabled, to cover all Americans and replace private health insurance. Biden hasn't endorsed that approach, though, and defeated Democratic primary challengers who did.
Medicare and Social Security together are projected to consume nearly 9% of total U.S. economic output in 2020, according to their trustees.
The president, who participated in a televised town hall Thursday night in Florida, later held rallies in Ocala, Florida, and Macon, Georgia.
Trump narrowly won the presidency in 2016 with about 53% of the senior vote, according to the Pew Research Center. That lead has evaporated. An NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist poll published this week showed Biden leading 54% to 45% among voters 65 and older.
Trump's campaign has acknowledged the weakness and is moving to try to shore it up. "You're seeing really good, really strong advertising that we're out of the box with this week that has tremendous appeal to seniors," campaign manager Bill Stepien told reporters Monday on a conference call.
The president, however, has undercut that message. He continues to downplay the coronavirus — which disproportionately harms the elderly — and earlier this week retweeted a meme depicting Biden, who's 77 to Trump's 74, as fit for a retirement home, rather than the presidency.
One in five Floridians is 65 or older, among the highest proportion of seniors in the U.S., U.S. Census Bureau data show. The U.S. population is aging, with the 65-and-old population growing by over a third, or nearly 14 million people, in the past decade, the data show.
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