By Jeff Mason
PHOENIX (Reuters) - President Donald Trump on Monday intensified his efforts to win over Latino voters as polls show their support increasingly up for grabs ahead of the November presidential election - a flashing warning light for Democrat Joe Biden’s campaign.
Trump hosted what was billed as a roundtable with local Latino supporters in Phoenix, a day after holding a similar event in Las Vegas. Unlike the Nevada event, the Phoenix stop featured a raucous audience of hundreds, sitting close together in the indoor venue, despite public health concerns about the coronavirus.
"This is supposed to be a roundtable, but it looks like a rally," Trump told the crowd.
Biden was scheduled to travel to Florida on Tuesday in a bid to shore up flagging support from Hispanic voters in that key battleground state.
The former vice president has seen his edge with Latino voters shrink in the run-up to the Nov. 3 election. The most recent national Reuters/Ipsos poll of the presidential race saw his lead over Trump among Hispanics fall to 9 points in August from 30 points in July.
At the Phoenix event, Trump was praised by small-business owners and members of local law enforcement, among others, while continuing to criticize Democratic protests against racism in U.S. cities, saying they threatened Latino businesses.
"They'll rip down your community," Trump said. "Many of these are Hispanic-American small businesses, stores, shops and they rip them down and call it peaceful protesting."
A day earlier, Trump held an indoor campaign rally in Las Vegas, drawing the condemnation of the state's Democratic governor, Steve Sisolak, who said the event ran afoul of the state's coronavirus guidelines.
Ahead of Trump’s visit to Phoenix, Latino Democratic officials in Arizona said the administration’s halting response to the pandemic had devastated Latino families in the states.
“So many Latinos in my community are essential workers who are on the front lines of the fight against coronavirus, but Trump’s failed response has treated our essential workers like they’re disposable, and it’s a disgrace,” state Senator Rebecca Rios said in a call with reporters.
Alfredo Gutierrez, a former Democratic state Senate majority leader, called the Latinos who met with Trump on Monday “self-loathing,” citing Trump’s history of incendiary rhetoric concerning Latino migrants and his efforts to build a wall along the border with Mexico.
“Why would they deign to sit, agree to sit, next to this guy who has spent the last three years spewing hate against us?" he said.
Trump won Arizona over Democrat Hillary Clinton by less than 4 points in 2016. Since then, the state, once a hotbed of conservatism, has elected a Democratic senator, Kyrsten Sinema, and the Biden campaign has hopes of scoring a win there.
Recent polls have shown Biden with a slight edge in the state. A CBS News/YouGov poll taken last week showed him with a 3-point lead.
Nationally, Hispanics make up the largest minority voting group at more than 13% of eligible voters. Clinton in 2016 won about two-thirds of the Latino vote, with Trump earning a 28% share, according to exit polls.
Biden’s trip to Florida on Tuesday comes as polls show the race there to be tight, and with Trump holding a 4-point lead with that state’s Latino voters – including its large Cuban-American community.
Biden will hold events in Florida in the cities of Tampa and Kissimmee, which have high Puerto Rican populations. "I am going to work like the devil to make sure I turn every Latino and Hispanic vote," Biden told reporters on Monday.
As part of his Western swing, Trump met with firefighters and officials in California earlier on Monday to discuss the largest wildfires in state history. He said forest management was key to controlling the blazes.
Biden addressed the fires in remarks at his home base of Wilmington, Delaware, calling Trump a “climate arsonist” for failing to acknowledge the role of global warming in the Western wildfires.
(Reporting by Jeff Mason in Phoenix and Trevor Hunnicutt in Wilmington, Del.; Additional reporting by Joseph Ax and Maria Caspani; Writing by James Oliphant; Editing by Peter Cooney)