Joe Biden and his allies took a different tack, seeking to refocus the conversation on the president’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic, which the campaign believes is overwhelmingly the most important issue to voters.
In a speech in Wilmington, Del., Biden hardly mentioned the debate and instead talked about Trump’s handling of the contagion, saying, “The president quit on you.”
With their last direct matchup in the rearview mirror and the scheduled events of the campaign now over, both teams plunged into a final, unscripted stretch, with fewer opportunities to make a fresh argument to the American people — or to stumble.
Trump hopes that holding several massive rallies over the next few days can help him drive home the themes from the debate, in which he used unverified news reports to cast Biden as corrupt, said the former vice president has little to show for his five decades in Washington and sought to paint Biden as a big-government liberal.
But in a contest that has remained remarkably stable, the president faces challenges to any effort to reset the race with 10 days to go. Millions of voters have already cast ballots, and few remain undecided. The Trump campaign has less money to spend than Biden’s, and coronavirus cases are spiking in many places, underlining the Democratic message.
Still, Trump’s camp worked Friday to amplify Biden’s inartful response during an exchange on energy policy, when the former vice president said on the debate stage that he would “transition” away from the oil industry.
Jason Miller, a senior strategist on the Trump campaign, called that a “massive stumble” that “probably will put the nail in the coffin for Joe Biden in Pennsylvania,” a state both campaigns view as must-win and where Biden has held a consistent lead.
Trump advisers suggested that the moment could also help them in other industrial Midwestern states, including Michigan, Minnesota, Ohio and Wisconsin.
Biden supporters dismissed the notion that the comment was some kind of game-changer. The Democrat clearly did not mean he would shut down the oil industry in the short term, they said, and in any case the energy industry is already shifting toward renewables on its own.
“Joe Biden is right: We need to transition off of fossil fuels to stop the climate crisis and prevent needless pain and death,” said Evan Weber, political director of the Sunrise Movement, a climate activist group that has sometimes been critical of Biden. “The reality is the oil industry is already bleeding jobs.”
Still, Biden’s team appeared to sense at least a potential danger. The candidate moved quickly to clarify his remarks, telling reporters after the debate that he was referring to ending federal oil subsidies, not the industry itself. On Friday, campaigning in Atlanta, Biden’s running mate, Sen. Kamala D. Harris (Calif.), fended off questions about his remarks.
“The president likes to put everything out of context,” Harris said. “But let’s be clear: What Joe was talking about was banning subsidies, but he will not ban fracking.”
Some Democrats in oil states distanced themselves from Biden’s comments. “Here’s one of the places Biden and I disagree,” said Rep. Kendra Horn (D-Okla.), who is in a tight race. “We must stand up for our oil and gas industry.”
“I disagree with VP Biden’s statement tonight,” tweeted Rep. Xochitl Torres Small (D-N.M.). “Energy is part of the backbone of New Mexico’s economy.”
Some Biden allies acknowledged that it wasn’t a good moment. “That was by far the only thing that could be categorized as a slip-up,” said former Pennsylvania governor Ed Rendell.
Other Democrats said the comment would not change how most voters see Biden — or Trump. “We’ve been talking about getting rid of the subsidies around fossil fuel for a long, long time,” said Rep. Tim Ryan (D-Ohio). “Trump is trying to make a little bit more of it than it was.”
Beyond the energy flare-up, Trump conducted himself with more decorum in Thursday’s debate than in the previous faceoff, avoiding some of the interruptions and rancor from that exchange, and he offered sharper attacks on Biden’s long government service than he had in the past.
On Friday the president said he thought that his aggressive posture in the first debate was “more effective in terms of business and life” but that his more sedate performance Thursday was “obviously a more popular way of doing it.”
“You know, I wanted to play by the rules,” Trump said of the second debate. “They felt very strongly about it. It’s two different styles. I’m able to do different styles, you know, if you had to. But this seemed to be much more popular.”
Biden supporters said the president was benefiting from extremely low expectations after his bullying performance in the first debate. “Trump did better than he did last time, but all he had to do is show up and shut his mouth,” Rendell said.
Biden sought to steer the focus back to Trump’s handling of the pandemic, criticizing his suggestion that the country is “rounding the corner” as coronavirus cases spike across the nation.
“If this is success, what’s a failure look like?” Biden said.
The Democrat outlined the steps he would take to combat the crisis, including implementing mask mandates, expanding testing capacity and ensuring that a vaccine, when ready, is distributed fairly.
“Imagine a day in the not-too-distant future when you can enjoy dinner with your friends and your family and maybe even go out to a movie,” Biden said.
Both candidates plan to spend the final days of the campaign making their closing arguments in swing states. Trump will head to his adopted home state of Florida to hold a rally and cast his own ballot. In the coming days, he also plans to hold events in North Carolina, Ohio, Wisconsin and New Hampshire.
Biden has scheduled stops over the weekend in Pennsylvania and will appear on an episode of the popular podcast “Pod Save America.” His campaign plans to repeat its longtime message that Trump’s botching of the coronavirus makes him unfit for the White House.
But after weeks of bad news — from troubling polls to money struggles to leadership changes — the Trump camp seized on the debate as a glimmer of hope.
The campaign said Friday that it had raised about $26 million via online donations after the debate, the reelection effort’s largest digital fundraising day and a number that eclipsed donations that came in around the previous debate.
The infusion comes at a critical time. This week Trump was forced to cancel $24.6 million worth of ad buys in 10 states, pulling the most money out of TV in Florida and Ohio — two must-win states — and yanking some ad reservations in Pennsylvania, according to Advertising Analytics, which tracks spending on television spots.
Biden, who has outraised Trump in the past few months, has added $16 million to his television budget for the final days of the campaign, according to the firm. The biggest chunks are going to Florida, where his campaign is deploying former president Barack Obama over the weekend, and Pennsylvania.
There’s also a stark difference in ad buys that are already slotted for the next two weeks. Biden has paid for ads worth $43.6 million, while Trump is at $12.4 million, meaning he will have a harder time projecting his message on the airwaves.
The campaign’s basic dynamic, Biden suggested, is far more important than Trump moderately restraining himself in a single debate.
“A slight change of tone from the president for one night doesn’t cover up the lies he told,” Biden tweeted. “It doesn’t change the fact that over 220,000 Americans have died from COVID-19 on his watch. We can’t take another four years of Donald Trump’s failed leadership.”