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The 2020 campaign closes on the coronavirus

First Read is your briefing from "Meet the Press" and the NBC Political Unit on the day's most important political stories and why they matter.
Image: President Donald Trump takes his mask off before speaking from the South Portico of the White House.
President Donald Trump takes his mask off before speaking from the South Portico of the White House.Mandel Ngan / AFP - Getty Images file

WASHINGTON — The October surprise in this presidential election hasn’t been the Supreme Court vacancy. Or Hunter Biden. Or what Joe Biden said at Thursday’s debate about transitioning away from oil.

Instead, it’s been the coronavirus.

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The month began with President Trump testing positive and being flown by helicopter to Walter Reed.

It included a canceled debate (because organizers wanted the town-hall component to be held virtually after Trump’s positive case), as well as the president’s return to the campaign trail.

And the month ends with the United States setting new record-highs in coronavirus cases, with top staffers for Vice President Mike Pence testing positive, and with White House chief of staff Mark Meadows admitting the administration can’t control the virus.

To top it off, the coronavirus has become arguably the key message contrast in this election.

Here was Trump over the weekend: “Turn on television. ‘Covid, Covid, Covid, Covid, Covid, Covid.’ A plane goes down, 500 people dead, they don't talk about it. Covid, Covid, Covid. By the way, on November 4th you won't hear about it anymore.”

And here was Biden: “[A]t the debate on Thursday night, Donald Trump said – and is still saying – we're rounding the corner. It's going away. We're learning how to live with it. What I told him [at] that debate, we're not learning how to live with it, you're asking us to learn how to die with it.”

As we wrote back in March when the pandemic first hit the United States, responding to the coronavirus was never in his political toolbox.

He can’t threaten the virus with a primary challenge. Or hold a rally against it. Or tweet it away.

And seven months later, it’s showing.

Tweet of the day

Senate set to confirm Amy Coney Barrett

Now putting a third justice on the Supreme Court? That’s much more in Trump’s political toolbox.

On Sunday, the Senate advanced Amy Coney Barrett’s nomination to the Supreme Court by a 51-48 vote along mostly party lines.

And NBC’s Julie Tsirkin says a final vote — which requires just a simple majority for confirmation — will take place beginning Monday night.

Over the weekend, Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, reversed course and said she would vote FOR Amy Coney Barrett in the final confirmation vote.

Data Download: The numbers you need to know today

8,709,481: The number of confirmed cases of coronavirus in the United States, per the most recent data from NBC News and health officials. (That’s 253,393 more than Friday morning.)

226,435: The number of deaths in the United States from the virus so far. (That’s 2,155 more than Friday morning.)

132.57 million: The number of coronavirus tests that have been administered in the United States so far, according to researchers at The COVID Tracking Project.

55,570,826: The number of Americans who have voted early, either by mail or in person, according to NBC and TargetSmart

52,010: The number of new coronavirus cases in France, a new record.

47 percent to 46 percent: The state of the race between Joe Biden and Donald Trump in Georgia, according to an Atlanta Journal Constitution poll out this morning.

Five: The number of top aides to Vice President Mike Pence who have tested positive for coronavirus.

2020 Vision: Campaigning during the coronavirus

On “Meet the Press” yesterday, one of us noted that of the major battleground states, Biden has out-campaigned Trump in-person in just one state since Sept. 1 — Pennsylvania.

By contrast, Trump has out-campaigned Biden in Arizona, North Carolina and Florida.

Asked for a response to that, Biden Deputy Campaign Manager Kate Bedingfield replied: “We have been very aggressively campaigning. but here's, here's the difference between what we're doing and what Donald Trump is doing. We're doing it safely. We're taking into account the safety of these communities that we're visiting.”

On the campaign trail today

Trump spends his day in Pennsylvania, hitting Allentown, Lititz and Martinsburg. Mike Pence stumps in Minnesota.

Ad Watch from Ben Kamisar

Today’s Ad Watch heads to North Carolina, where Democrat Cal Cunningham is addressing the scandal that rocked that Senate race.

Cunningham unveiled a direct-to-camera spot over the weekend where he accuses Republican Sen. Thom Tillis of “attacking my personal life because he doesn’t want to talk about his own record,” before criticizing Tillis on health care and his votes to repeal ObamaCare.

“I approve this message because it may be my name on the ballot, but it’s your health care,” he says to close.

The Democrat admitted to an extramarital affair after text messages between him and a woman who was not his wife surfaced, but despite a few brief apologies he’s refused to answer many questions on the situation.

Tillis and Republican groups have blanketed the airwaves in ads reminding voters of the scandal, as well as arguing that Cunningham hasn’t been truthful with voters. Recent polls still show Cunningham with the edge, but the Democrat’s decision to hit the airwaves with an explanation shows he’s trying to cut the attacks off and stop any potential bleeding.

The Lid: Heading for the exits

Don’t miss the pod from Friday, when we looked at maybe the most important demographic group when looking at the exit polls on Nov. 3.

ICYMI: What else is happening in the world

What’s the state of the race in Arizona?

Here’s how vulnerable incumbent senators are viewing Amy Coney Barrett’s confirmation vote today.

Sahil Kapur looks at five key races likely to determine Senate control.

Vladimir Putin says he doesn’t see anything criminal in Hunter Biden’s business dealings.

Progressives are pushing Elizabeth Warren as Treasury Secretary.

Japan says it will become carbon-neutral by 2050.

Nancy Pelosi will run for House speaker again if Democrats keep the House.

Here’s the backstory about how the Wall Street Journal ultimately didn’t bite on the Hunter Biden story.