On the trail: Biden, Sanders blast Trump amid coronavirus fears


SUMTER, S.C. (Reuters) – U.S. Democratic presidential contenders blasted the Republican Trump administration’s handling of the coronavirus outbreak on the eve of South Carolina’s fourth-in-the-nation nominating contest on Saturday.

Democratic U.S. presidential candidate and former U.S. Vice President Joe Biden speaks during a campaign event in Sumter, South Carolina, U.S., February 28, 2020. REUTERS/Elizabeth Frantz

Former Vice President Joe Biden is banking on the southern state to breathe new life into his struggling campaign and make him the top moderate alternative to national front-runner Bernie Sanders, a self-described democratic socialist.

Here’s what is happening on Friday:

CORONAVIRUS CRITICISM

Biden, U.S. Senator Sanders and former New York Mayor Mike Bloomberg joined the chorus of prominent Democrats criticizing the administration response to the virus, whose rapid spread reached six new countries and sent global stock markets tumbling again on Friday.

At a campaign event in Sumter, South Carolina, Biden accused President Donald Trump and Vice President Mike Pence, who is overseeing the government response to the outbreak, of misleading the American public about the virus threat.

“Trump and Pence decided that the public health experts cannot inform the public on their own what’s going on,” Biden said. “Now the president won’t let other people tell the truth.”

Sanders slammed Trump for holding a rally in North Charleston, South Carolina, on Friday night rather than remaining in Washington to address the situation.

“Why is he here? He’s here to try and disrupt the Democratic primary,” Sanders said at an event in St. George. “How pathetic and how petty can you be?”

Bloomberg focused on the coronavirus in campaign speeches on Thursday and Friday, and pointed to the sharp drop in stock market prices on Friday as a sign of concern about Trump’s competence.

“The stock market has plunged partly out of fear (about the virus) but also because investors have no confidence that this president is capable of managing the crisis,” Bloomberg told a rally in Memphis, Tennessee.

Bloomberg, a late entrant in the race for the White House, has not competed in Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada or South Carolina, and is pinning his hopes on Super Tuesday nominating contests next week in Tennessee and 13 other states. On Thursday, he campaigned in Texas, Oklahoma and Arkansas.

Trump defended his handling of the threat on Twitter on Thursday evening, writing that the administration’s actions put “us way ahead in our battle with coronavirus.”

Earlier in the week, he called the risk from the virus “very low” in the United States.

At present, there are 62 confirmed cases of the virus in the United States, including people repatriated from the Diamond Princess cruise ship docked in Japan, U.S. officials said.

COUNTING ON SOUTH CAROLINA

Biden continued to show signs of growing strength ahead of Saturday’s primary.

His campaign celebrated a $1.2 million one-day online fundraising haul, the most contributed by small-dollar internet donors since his campaign launch last year, when similar contributions added up to more than $6 million.

A Monmouth University poll released on Thursday showed Biden with large support from black South Carolina voters, who make up about 60% of the state’s Democratic electorate.

He was buoyed as well by an endorsement from U.S. Senator Tim Kaine of Virginia, who was the 2016 Democratic vice presidential nominee under Hillary Clinton. Virginia votes on Tuesday.

In Sumter, undecided voter Marybeth Berry, 44, told Biden that she sees a “fire” in some of his rivals and asked what drives him.

“Because you see Bernie, you see Elizabeth Warren, you see that fire. That’s what I’m looking for,” said Berry, a theater professor at the University of South Carolina Lancaster.

Biden looked Berry in the eyes and said: “The fact that I’m not screaming like Bernie and waving my arms or like Elizabeth it’s not lack of fire.”

He said “decency and honor” drive him and that he hates to see the “abuse of power” against vulnerable people.

“And I’m glad you asked me the question because it’s making me mad even answering it,” he said.

Berry said she thought Biden’s answer was “very, very good” and “powerful,” and that she was leaning towards him after hearing him speak, but added she was also considering Sanders.

Her husband, Christopher, an Army veteran who met Biden when he served in Iraq, was already convinced. He voted for Trump in 2016 but is supporting Biden this time.

Biden had poor showings in Iowa and New Hampshire and finished a distant second place in Nevada.

WARREN CALLS FOR SUPER PAC DISCLOSURE

At a canvassing kickoff event in Greenville, an animated Warren fired up a crowd of supporters and volunteers, telling them that “our democracy, our world, hangs in the balance” in 2020.

“I’m Elizabeth Warren, and I’m the woman who’s going to beat Donald Trump,” she said, repeating a line she has recently begun delivering at campaign events.

Her campaign also called on a new pro-Warren Super PAC to disclose its donors before Super Tuesday. The Massachusetts senator has been criticized for not disavowing the effort given her longstanding criticism of such groups.

Slideshow (8 Images)

The Persist PAC announced it would spend $9 million to air television advertisements ahead of the Super Tuesday contests.

The ads will run in some of the most expensive media markets in California, Texas and Massachusetts. The new buy is in addition to more than $3 million the group previously spent in California and seven other Super Tuesday states.

Super PACS may raise and spend unlimited sums of money to support candidates as long as they do not coordinate directly with those candidates’ campaigns.

Reporting by Trevor Hunnicutt, Joseph Ax and Simon Lewis; Writing by Sharon Bernstein and James Oliphant; Editing by Jonathan Oatis and Sonya Hepinstall



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