By Dara Kam, The News Service of Florida
TAMPA — Likening the November election to “reclaiming America’s soul, for real,” former Vice President Joe Biden held a crowd of supporters spellbound Monday as he shared a stage with Florida’s top two Democratic candidates as early voting started in many parts of the state.
“I think there’s something different about this election,” Biden, who was introduced by gubernatorial candidate Andrew Gillum as “the coolest man on Planet Earth,” said. “This election is bigger than politics, I mean, for real.”
The afternoon rally at a University of South Florida gym followed a nationally televised debate Sunday night between Gillum, who is seeking to make history as the state’s first black governor, and Ron DeSantis, a former congressman who parlayed his endorsement by President Donald Trump into a decisive Republican primary victory in August.
Biden joined Gillum and Democratic U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson onstage, delivering a 30-minute speech in which he hammered President Donald Trump, DeSantis and Gov. Rick Scott, who is trying to unseat Nelson. Biden seesawed between painting a frightening picture of the nation’s future if left in Republicans’ hands and a more positive vision if Democrats were to regain control.
“This is all about a president who’s trying to amass power so he can abuse power,” Biden said, as people periodically encouraged him to run for president by shouting “2020!”
Biden, who hailed Gillum as “one of the most exciting, new, young leaders in the nation,” said he and former President Barack Obama followed the lead of previous administrations by remaining on the sidelines throughout Trump’s first year in office.
But Biden, affectionately known by Democrats as “Uncle Joe,” said he “could not stay silent anymore” after a “Unite the Right” rally last year in Charlottesville, Va,. that led to the death of Heather Heyer when a car plowed into a crowd of counter-protesters. Trump appeared to show support for both sides after the deadly confrontation.
“We’re in a battle for the soul of America,” Biden warned, chastising Trump for making a “moral equivalency” between white supremacists and counter-protesters.
“He said there’s good people on both sides,” Biden scolded Trump.
While Trump is “spewing this divisive rhetoric,” the president’s “self-selected candidate against Andrew is doing the same thing,” Biden said, referring to DeSantis.
“It’s not just happening in Charlottesville. Calling certain immigrants animals. … The reason you have a problem is because of that black guy, that black woman. It’s the tool that’s been used by charlatans throughout history. Find a scapegoat in order to widen the area for you to be able to step in and assume power,” he said.
The day after the Aug. 28 primary, DeSantis drew widespread criticism for remarks made during an interview on Fox News, where the congressman was a frequent guest leading up to the election.
DeSantis said Florida should “build off the success” achieved by Scott and reject Gillum.
“The last thing we need to do is to monkey this up by trying to embrace a socialist agenda with huge tax increases, and bankrupting the state,” DeSantis told Fox. “That’s not going to work.”
Civil rights leaders and others demanded that DeSantis apologize because of the “monkey this up” comment, but the former congressman denied that his remarks were racist.
Biden also heaped praise on Nelson, who has spent almost 18 years in the Senate but is facing a tough challenge from Scott. Biden, in part, praised Nelson for voting in favor of the Affordable Care Act, Obama’s signature legislation that has been a frequent target of Republicans. Scott made his foray into politics as an opponent of the health-care overhaul.
Nelson’s vote in support of what is known as “Obamacare” gave “tens of millions of people piece of mind,” Biden said.
“I have never met anyone with more character, courage and decency than Bill Nelson,” Biden, wearing a plaid shirt with the sleeves rolled up and navy trousers, said to cheers.
Biden encouraged voters to “reset the moral compass” at the polls.
“Our children are listening, and our silence is complicit,” he warned. “It’s about dreaming again. It’s about possibilities. … Let’s take it back.”
But Republicans pooh-poohed the former vice-president’s appearance for Nelson and Gillum, saying he was “wasting his time.”
“The Republican Party is more unified than ever in the Sunshine State thanks to the success of economic growth under Governor Scott’s leadership. While Biden was attempting to gin up support for an unhinged Democratic Party, Republicans were rallying behind our proven Republican leaders who have fought hard to get Floridians back to work,” Republican National Committee spokesman Joe Jackson said in a statement.
Before Biden spoke at the rally, Nelson urged voters to support Gillum in the contest against DeSantis, saying they “gotta get out there and vote like our lives depend on it.”
Gillum delivered a familiar stump speech, touching on education, health care, the environment and criminal-justice reform to the crowd that was a mix of students and older supporters. As he almost always does, Gillum shared his personal story of coming from a working-class family in which he, as the fifth of seven children, was the first to graduate from high school and, later, college.
Gillum said he wants to raise salaries for Florida teachers, who he said are paid on average $10,000 a year less than what educators around the country earn.
As his grandmother would have said, Gillum concluded, “that’s not just a shame, that’s a crying shame,” repeating the word “shame” three times as the audience echoed his words.