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Week In Politics: Trump And Biden's Two Town Halls

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

So here's politics in 2020 - daily coronavirus infections rise, and two presidential candidates have divergent assessments of the pandemic and its damage.

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PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Now it's running its course. We're rounding the turn. You see the numbers. We're rounding the turn.

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JOE BIDEN: Turn the corner - my lord. It's not disappearing. In fact, it's on the rise again.

SIMON: One thing not on the rise - President Trump's poll numbers. Joining us now, as he does most Saturdays, NPR's Ron Elving. Ron, thanks so much for being with us.

RON ELVING, BYLINE: Good to be with you, Scott.

SIMON: Ron, this was the week that President Trump, who is - was one of the more than 8 million Americans who've tested positive for coronavirus, got back on the campaign trail - a whole slew of rallies and a town hall. What did you see in his performance?

ELVING: It was remarkably reminiscent of 2016. Taking the whole week as a package, he talked about Hillary Clinton. He talked about laptop computers and emails. One boisterous crowd in Florida even chanted lock her up, although in this case, the her was someone different. It was Savannah Guthrie...

SIMON: Oh, my.

ELVING: ...The NBC host who gave the president more than he bargained for in that town hall on Thursday night.

Let's give credit here. The president is drawing on his extraordinary sources of energy, doing multiple events a day in different states, spending a lot of time, though, in states he won pretty easily last time, such as Iowa, Georgia, North Carolina, and really leaning into Florida and Pennsylvania, Pennsylvania being the Keystone State and the keystone for Biden as well.

So the president is running against more than just a double-digit deficit in the polls. He's racing against time and the pandemic and the autumn surge that has cases spiking all over the country, but especially in the Midwest.

SIMON: Anybody switching between the two town halls, as our family was - I suspect yours was - didn't - couldn't help but notice the different tones. You mentioned Savannah Guthrie with the president. How would you compare that to the questioning that Joe Biden got from George Stephanopoulos on ABC?

ELVING: Stephanopoulos asked the important questions, and he pressed for answers. But it wasn't confrontational the way it was often with Guthrie and Trump. Biden defended his work to Stephanopoulos on the 1994 Crime Bill that's been controversial, and also his refusal to take a clear position on expanding the Supreme Court to give a Democratic president, if he were one, more seats to fill. Here's what he said to Stephanopoulos when asked how he would respond if the Senate voted on Amy Coney Barrett's nomination before the election.

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BIDEN: I'm open to considering what happens from that point on.

GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: You know, you have said so many times during the campaign, all through the course of your career, it's important to level with the American people.

BIDEN: It is. George, if I say - no matter what answer I gave you, if I say it, that's the headline tomorrow. It won't be about what's going on now, the improper way they're proceeding.

STEPHANOPOULOS: But don't voters have a right to know where you stand?

BIDEN: They do have a right to know where I stand, and they'll have a right to know where I stand before they vote.

ELVING: Now, that's a hot one, Scott, because Biden has historically been opposed to expanding the court. He says he's not a fan of that. But a lot of Democratic activists really want him to add more seats if he becomes president so that he could balance out the Trump appointees.

SIMON: Ron, you and I were lucky to both be part of the live coverage of Amy Coney Barrett's confirmation hearings this week before the Judiciary Committee. What do you - what did you notice?

ELVING: First of all, it's obvious she will be confirmed. They're going to start voting this next week in committee, then move on to the floor. It'll be a party-line vote, probably almost perfectly. She has the qualifications, and the Republicans have the votes.

But just as obvious is the rather degraded state of hearings of this type before the Judiciary Committee. Nominees for the high court now simply evade all the questions that any reasonable person might ask. And the senators in both parties spend their time making speeches for their own videotaped highlights.

SIMON: And, of course, you mentioned the Republican-controlled Senate. According to the polls that we're seeing a couple weeks before Election Day, is it likely to remain a Republican-controlled Senate?

ELVING: It's right on a knife's edge, Scott. Twelve seats could go from one party to the other. Eleven of those are now in Republican hands. So if even half of those go from red to blue, Mitch McConnell would no longer be the majority leader in the Senate. And if that were to happen, it would be a sign that Democrats were reclaiming the White House as well and doing well down-ballot.

SIMON: NPR's Ron Elving, always good to have you, my friend. Thanks so much.

ELVING: Thank you, Scott. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.