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Biden's campaign counts on Trump's unpopularity amid COVID-19 crisis

Joe Biden's presidential campaign believes November's election will be a "referendum" on President Trump's response to the coronavirus pandemic and is preparing to spend most of its time wooing voters online in the coming months. 

In a briefing for reporters on Friday -- the first high-level strategy discussion with the press since Biden campaign manager Jen O'Malley Dillon took over in mid-March -- senior aides insisted they believe the president's growing unpopularity will sink his chances.  

"Presidents get measured by how they are seen in a crisis," Biden senior strategist Mike Donilon said. "He didn't act decisively, what he did was he froze." 

"The single biggest driver in terms of turnout and enthusiasm is actually going to be the percentage of people who have very favorable, very unfavorable opinion of Donald Trump," Donilon added.

With the death toll from the virus at more than 80,000 Americans and unemployment creeping towards historic Depression-era levels, Donilon said the Trump administration's public health and economic response is "not going to be a distant memory because the public has a very clear sense of what happened."

During the Zoom session, Biden aides said they believe the November contest will focus on all or parts of 17 states. These include those states they say require "protecting" — the Democratic-friendly states of Virginia, Minnesota, Colorado, New Hampshire and Nevada; states they are focused on "winning back" — Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, Wisconsin, Iowa, North Carolina and Florida — where President Obama found success — and "expanding" the map to include the states of Arizona, Georgia and Texas. 

Biden's team is also targeting congressional districts that have swung red and blue in varying elections in Maine and Nebraska, two states that divide up electoral college votes based on results in individual House districts.

Senior aides forecasted that if Biden can prevail in Florida, Arizona, Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin and hold all other states Hillary Clinton won in 2016, then Biden would capture 318 electoral votes, eclipsing the necessary 270 electoral votes to become president. Clinton lost all of these states in 2016, while Mr. Obama won all of these states, except Arizona, in 2012.

Map: Where the Biden campaign believes it is competitive.

O'Malley Dillon was especially confident about Biden's chances in Arizona.

"I am bullish about Arizona. Arizona is a battleground state for the first time," she said.

The Grand Canyon State has voted Republican in recent presidential elections, but the campaign said it believes it can win by driving up turnout among Latino and younger voters and by coordinating closely with Democratic Senate candidate Mark Kelly, a popular former astronaut who is polling ahead of Republican Sen. Martha McSally and topping her in fundraising. 

The campaign, in its 64-minute briefing, did not specify a strategy to "win back" other states where Clinton lost in 2016, like Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin. 

To turn the perceived map into reality, Donilon said Biden's initial message of fighting for the middle class and drawing a contrast between Biden and  Mr. Trump on character has been amplified during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

But voters eager to see Biden in real life may have to wait longer even as Mr. Trump has started traveling again to states like Arizona and Pennsylvania.

The campaign on Friday declined to offer a timeline for Biden's physical return to the campaign trail. 

"There is obviously a lot of interest in, you know, his location but he is fundamentally showing up where voters are and engaging with them every single day," O'Malley Dillon said. "First and foremost, the most important thing for us and for the campaign is public safety."

She assured reporters that appropriate measures to ensure everyone's safety would be taken by Biden and the large staff and Secret Service contingent that comes with a presidential campaign. Asked whether there are plans to test Biden for COVID-19 -- as the candidate mentioned briefly earlier this week -- senior staffers said there was no current plan to test him. 

O'Malley Dillon debuted plans to have more than 600 field and outreach staff in states by June. She said the campaign's bank account is growing substantially, boosted by the Democratic party's alignment behind Biden,  and now has $103 million cash on hand. 

Asked by a reporter if the Biden campaign believes the Trump campaign has anything to do with the expanded allegations of sexual assault from Tara Reade, deputy campaign manager Kate Bedingfield said, "The short answer on that is no."

"We are not questioning her motive and [Biden] has addressed this unequivocally," she added. Biden denies the allegations.

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