By Trevor Hunnicutt and John Whitesides
KISSIMMEE, Fla. (Reuters) - Democrat Joe Biden courted Hispanic voters on Tuesday on his first campaign visit of the year to Florida, saying President Donald Trump had let them down with his divisive immigration policies and a disastrous response to the coronavirus pandemic.
The Democratic presidential nominee, trying to overcome what opinion polls show is lagging support among the battleground state's Hispanics, said Trump had proven he could not be a leader for all Americans.
"Donald Trump has failed the Hispanic community time and time again," Biden told a Hispanic Heritage Month event in Kissimmee, the heart of the state's rapidly growing Puerto Rican community.
With less than 50 days until the Nov. 3 election, Biden is trying to overcome concerns about him among Florida Latinos amid a disinformation campaign that has painted the moderate Democratic presidential nominee as a socialist.
Polls show Biden with a slight lead or essentially tied with Trump in the state, although the former vice president lags behind Democrat Hillary Clinton's level of support with Florida Hispanics in 2016. Trump won Florida over Clinton by just 1.2 percentage points, which helped propel him to the White House.
Trump's inroads with Florida Hispanics have been fueled by his strength with conservative Cuban Americans, a Republican-leaning bloc he has courted throughout his presidency.
Florida's Republican lieutenant governor, Jeanette Núñez, a daughter of Cuban immigrants, told reporters that Biden's agenda contradicted the values of "faith, family and freedom" held by Hispanic voters because he was "in the pocket" of the left.
Biden's visit to Kissimmee in central Florida was a sign of the campaign's focus on winning over Puerto Rican voters. Kissimmee received a big influx of people from the U.S. island territory after it was devastated by Hurricane Maria in 2017.
"Donald Trump has done nothing but assault the dignity of Hispanic families," he said, pointing to the president's policy of separating families at the southern border and the disproportionate toll that COVID-19 had taken on the community.
Biden rolled out an economic recovery plan for Puerto Rico that would remove restrictions on its access to disaster relief funding, forgive some federal disaster loans and expand investment in community health centers.
"I'm not going to throw paper towels at people who have just been devastated by a hurricane," Biden said, reminding voters of Trump's response on a visit to the island after Maria. Trump has defended his handling of the hurricane recovery effort.
Biden has vowed to rescind many of the hardline immigration policies put in place by Trump's administration, and has emphasized the need for broad health and economic strategies to recover from the coronavirus pandemic.
'MASSIVE DISINFORMATION CAMPAIGN'
Some Florida Democrats said they had noticed a sharp rise in videos and commentary in social media and texts repeating falsehoods about Biden and pushing other conspiracy theories about Democrats.
"We are seeing a massive disinformation campaign in Spanish aimed at our community calling Biden and Democrats socialists, and it is having an effect," said Evelyn Perez-Verdia, a Colombian-American Democratic strategist in south Florida.
Asked by a Reuters reporter as he boarded a flight to Florida how he would handle disinformation campaigns targeting Latino voters, Biden said he would "just tell the truth."
"Everybody knows who Trump is. People are going to show up and vote,” Biden said.
Florida, where Hispanics make up about 20% of the state electorate, is a linchpin in Trump's re-election strategy. A Biden win of Florida's 29 electoral votes would sharply reduce Trump's chances of another term - no Republican has won the presidency without Florida since Calvin Coolidge in 1924.
Trump, a former New York businessman, changed his permanent residence to Florida last year.
Nationally, Hispanics make up the largest minority voting group, at more than 13% of eligible voters. Biden's support with Latino voters across the country has dropped; they favored him over Trump by 9 points in August, down from 30 points in July, according to Reuters/Ipsos data.
The Biden campaign, urged by Democrats to do more to court Latinos, has stepped up Spanish-language and bilingual advertising and hired more staff.
Polls show Biden running ahead of Clinton's level of 2016 support among seniors in Florida, another crucial voting bloc, and among white voters, giving him plenty of pathways to reach a majority, Democrats said.
They also said there was an opportunity for Biden to make up ground with Florida Hispanics, particularly among the state's non-Cuban Latinos who in addition to Puerto Ricans include Mexicans, Colombians and Venezuelans.
(Reporting by Trevor Hunnicutt in Tampa, Florida, and John Whitesides in Washington; Additional reporting by Simon Lewis, Michael Martina, Chris Kahn and Colleen Jenkins; Editing by Grant McCool and Peter Cooney)