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Coronavirus turns China into a 2020 election issue as Trump and Biden clash

Both candidates are scrambling as voters look to hold China accountable for allegedly concealing information and failing to contain the virus.
With the coronavirus impact taking center stage, China is fast becoming a major flashpoint in the U.S. presidential election.Andy Wong / AP

WASHINGTON — When President Donald Trump’s super PAC released a TV ad campaign this week painting Joe Biden as soft on China, the apparent Democratic nominee's campaign and outside allies immediately mobilized a full-court press to counter the attack.

Trump's America First Action PAC announced a $10 million TV and digital ad buy Thursday in Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania, three states that put Trump in the White House by narrow margins in the Electoral College.

The group's "Beijing Biden" ads herald Trump's travel restrictions from China while declaring that "for 40 years, Joe Biden has been wrong about China," spliced with ominous music, footage of Biden with President Xi Jinping and ending with insignia of the red and yellow Chinese flag on the Democrat’s face.

The Biden campaign rebutted it in videos from the former vice president and foreign policy adviser Tony Blinken, which hit Trump for eliminating U.S. pandemic preparedness resources and for praising China's "efforts and transparency" in its virus response.

His campaign held a Friday call with reporters featuring Blinken and Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio. The Democratic National Committee issued a memo saying it was Trump who “rolled over for China.”

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And the pro-Biden super PAC American Bridge unveiled its own ad buy worth $15 million in the same three states featuring footage of Trump, at times standing with Xi, saying China was "doing a very good job" handling the crisis. A narrator accuses him of having "trusted China" when he shouldn't have.

The back-and-forth shows the extent to which the deadly virus, which experts say originated in the city of Wuhan, has turned China into a powerful election-year issue, with both major party candidates scrambling to get on the right side. It isn’t just about outsourcing labor this time. It’s about an economic calamity and life-or-death consequences for voters looking to hold China accountable for allegedly concealing information about and failing to contain the virus.

The COVID-19 crisis has rocketed to the forefront of voter concerns as the official U.S. death toll tops 33,000 and sets up a battle over which candidate, Trump or Biden, can address public concerns about China as favorable opinions of the country nosedived in Gallup tracking polls.

A Harris poll taken April 3-5 found that 72 percent of Americans believe China inaccurately reported the impacts of the coronavirus. It found that 69 percent favor Trump's trade policies against China and most want him to take a tougher position with that nation. A majority of Americans even said China should be required to pay other countries to compensate for damage and suffering caused by the spread of the virus.

In the 2016 election, Trump successfully weaponized misgivings about China's trade practices, insisting that previous U.S. presidents, including his opponent Hillary Clinton's husband, had allowed the country to rip off Americans. He has slapped tariffs on Chinese products, which have at times drawn public resistance, in pursuit of overhauling trade relations with the country.

Trump's strategy is to place a simple contrast in the minds of voters. In a recent fundraising email to supporters, he proclaimed, "I am TOUGH ON CHINA and Sleepy Joe Biden is WEAK ON CHINA." His campaign has also highlighted past remarks from Biden questioning whether China represents serious economic "competition" for the U.S.

"China wants Sleepy Joe sooo badly," the president tweeted Saturday. "They want all of those billions of dollars that they have been paying to the U.S. back, and much more. Joe is an easy mark, their DREAM CANDIDATE!"

(China has not paid the U.S.; the cost of the tariffs are assumed by businesses and consumers.)

Biden has slammed Trump for his slow response to the crisis and for eliminating mechanisms to get ahead of pandemics, by cutting Centers for Disease Control and Prevention staff in China and scrapping a preparedness program called "Predict" that was launched by the Obama administration.

"The uncomfortable truth is that this president left America exposed and vulnerable to this pandemic. He ignored the warnings of health experts and intelligence agencies, and put his trust in China’s leaders instead. And now, we're all paying the price," Biden said in the video message, accusing Trump of being so eager to ink a trade deal with China he failed to act on the virus.

In recent days, Biden has said that if elected president he would re-establish the Obama-era global health pandemic office, but elevate it to a Cabinet-level position.

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An Economist/YouGov poll taken this week found Biden leading Trump by a 5-point margin, 48 percent to 43 percent, in a trial heat among American registered voters.

Asked about their views on Trump's handling of the virus outbreak, 38 percent of U.S. respondents said they were confident, while 50 percent said they were uneasy, and 12 percent weren't sure.

Whether or not the president can gain ground on the question of how he's handled the federal response to the virus, his allies are expressing confidence that he has the edge on public views of his response to the nation where it originated.

“A key issue of the 2020 election is going to be getting tougher on China and holding them accountable for the pandemic they started,” former Rep. Jim Renacci, R-Ohio, said on Twitter.