SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
President Trump and Joe Biden are making last-minute pitches to seniors. Trump campaigned yesterday at crowded rallies in Florida and Georgia. Biden spoke to socially distanced supporters in Michigan. Nearly 1 in 4 eligible voters are over 65 this election. That makes them critical to the candidates. For Trump, it means trying to show a more empathetic side when talking about the pandemic. He's earned poor marks for how he's handled it. But after recovering from COVID-19 himself, and as the calendar winds down to Election Day, he's trying out a new approach.
NPR White House correspondent Ayesha Rascoe joins us to tell us about it. Ayesha, thanks for being with us.
AYESHA RASCOE, BYLINE: Thanks for having me.
SIMON: With some questions about the president's own health still in the air, he was in Florida with a group of seniors. And, of course, we will note, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, people who are 65 and older account for 8 out of 10 COVID deaths in the United States, so this age group has been hit especially hard. What did you notice in the president's message yesterday, Ayesha?
RASCOE: You know, he's been reluctant to talk about people being hurt by the pandemic. But on Friday, he had prepared remarks, and he actually stuck to them - or mostly stuck to them - where he spoke directly to seniors, saying they've been hurt the most and isolated the most.
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PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: My heart breaks for every grieving family that has lost a precious loved one. I feel their anguish, and I mourn their loss. I feel their pain. I know that - the terrible pain that they have gone through when you lose someone, and there's nothing to describe what you have to bear. There's nothing to describe it.
RASCOE: This is the more disciplined and empathetic message that we have not heard from Trump consistently. You know, everyone remembers that Axios interview where he said it is what it is about COVID deaths. He was still putting a happy face on everything about treatments and vaccines, but it was a definite shift with a group that his campaign is struggling to win over. He's basically tied with Joe Biden in Florida, and he will have a hard time winning the state and the election unless he makes this case.
SIMON: And the president did two rallies after that somber speech. Did he stay with that tone and that message?
RASCOE: No. He was back to, you know, regularly scheduled programming. You know, he's bragging that things are turning around soon, that he recovered, that his teenage son, Barron, had the coronavirus and was barely affected. You know, he even brought up his aide, Hope Hicks, onstage. She was one of, you know, the many people at the White House who became sick earlier this month with the coronavirus. He was kind of showing off that they had both recovered.
And this is the message that really drowns out the earlier message that he was giving and leaves an opening for Biden, who has made Trump's response to the coronavirus the centerpiece of his argument, you know, to vote him out. Here's Biden yesterday in Michigan.
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JOE BIDEN: Americans don't panic. Donald Trump panicked. That's who panicked.
BIDEN: And as a consequence of his overwhelming lying, negligence and irresponsible action, how many empty chairs were around the kitchen table this morning or the dining room table last night? How many?
RASCOE: Biden really hammered this point across at his events yesterday. And this is what he's been saying when he's, you know, talking to voters.
SIMON: Ayesha, Election Day - just over two weeks away. Where are the campaigns focusing their energy?
RASCOE: Trump is on this jam-packed schedule. Meanwhile, Joe Biden is going to get some help on the trail next week from former President Obama. Biden will campaign in Pennsylvania next week. He's been keeping his rallies smaller and more socially distant. And then the two candidates will meet in Nashville on Thursday for the final debate.
SIMON: NPR's Ayesha Rascoe, thanks very much for being with us.
RASCOE: Thank you.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.