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Mounting COVID-19 concern in U.S. poised to shape primary battle


CHARLESTON, S.C. — For the Democrats vying to challenge Donald Trump, growing public concern about the possible spread of the new coronavirus, coupled with apprehension about the White House response to the escalating crisis, couldn't have come at a better time.

For the president of the United States, the timing couldn't be worse.

Candidates Mike Bloomberg, Sen. Amy Klobuchar and former vice-president Joe Biden are among those seizing on fears of a global pandemic to press their case that Americans need an experienced hand at the helm.

"Managing a crisis is what Mike Bloomberg does," a narrator intones in a new campaign ad — titled "Pandemic" — released Thursday that touts the former New York mayor's recovery efforts after 9/11.

"Trump is putting American lives at risk every day, ignoring science, claiming the virus will 'miraculously' disappear by April and relying on 'warm weather' to end the spread of the virus," his campaign said in a release. "It is clearer than ever that the country needs a leader with real experience managing a crisis."

Biden, whose campaign — predicated almost entirely on his experience as Barack Obama's right-hand man — is showing signs of a new lease on life in South Carolina, often speaks at length about his role in helping to prevent an outbreak of the Ebola virus on American soil during the 44th president's second term.

All of a sudden, Trump's longtime fixation with erasing Obama's legacy at all costs could be playing right into Biden's hands.  

"The president from the beginning is basically saying, 'Don't worry, no problem, no problem here.' And he goes in and he takes away the office we set up that's designed to deal with pandemic disease," Biden told a CNN town hall event Wednesday in Charleston.

"He tried to defund the (Centers for Disease Control). He tried to defund the (National Institutes of Health). He did not have a plan to deal with how you equip hospitals that are going to be able to take care of people to have the right docs, the right capacity, and the right ability to contain. None of that happened."

No one would go so far as to suggest Biden is hoping for a pandemic, said Robert Oldendick, a political science professor at the University of South Carolina in Columbia, S.C. But he's certainly in a good position to capitalize on a public health crisis that could end up exposing the inexperience and misplaced priorities of the Trump White House.

"It allows him to play up both the experience and that experienced hand at the wheel," Oldendick said.

"I am not so jaded as to say that the Biden campaign is rooting for a crisis, but certainly to the extent that this does become more prominent over the next couple of weeks. It is an issue that Biden's in a position to take advantage of."

Biden, written off by many going into South Carolina after dismal performances in Iowa and New Hampshire, appears to be making up ground. A new Monmouth University poll out Thursday gave him a 20-point lead over Sanders, a distant second at 16 per cent — and that's before Tuesday's debate and the powerful endorsement of House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn.

Klobuchar has also tried to portray herself as a competent manager with the government experience necessary to quell public fear and keep the disease from spreading. During this week's televised debate in Charleston, she made a point of promoting the CDC's website instead of her own.

With stock markets shedding value at an alarming rate, Trump tried to soothe jangled nerves Wednesday by putting Vice-President Mike Pence in charge of the response to COVID-19, the respiratory illness caused by the virus. He blamed sharp market drops on the Democratic debate, even though the bulk of the losses predated it. And he played down the risk that the disease could soon find a foothold in the U.S.

Shortly after his news conference, however, news emerged of a patient in California who contracted the illness without having travelled to an affected part of the world or having contact with anyone who did — worrisome evidence the disease could be spreading within the wider community.

"Whatever happens, we are totally prepared," Trump insisted. "We have the best prepared people, the best people in the world.... it is going to be very under control."

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi disagreed Thursday, calling the response "opaque" and "chaotic," suggesting Trump is more concerned about the potential impact on stock markets and the economy than on public health. She did say, however, that Republicans and Democrats on Capitol Hill are nearing an agreement on funding to address the crisis.

Would-be Democratic nominees who are pitching more dramatic, progressive change — Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, namely — might also stand to benefit from a public health crisis in the U.S. should the disease "become a major pandemic, kind of a worst-case scenario where all schools get cancelled and people have to shelter in place and everybody telecommutes," Oldendick said.

"That's something where maybe people say, 'There really is some need for systemic change here.'"

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 27, 2020.

— Follow James McCarten on Twitter @CdnPressStyle


James McCarten, The Canadian Press