Donald Trump and Joe Biden converged on Florida on Thursday in the final stages of the battle for the swing state, which the president must win to have a realistic chance of holding on to power.
“You hold the key,” Biden told a rally in Broward county. “If Florida goes blue, it’s over. It’s over!”
The rivals duelled over interpretations of new data which showed the US economy recovering fast in the third quarter, but still suffering from the impact of the Covid pandemic. And despite Trump’s efforts to push the issue aside, the candidates’ widely different approaches to the pandemic came into focus once more.
The Trump campaign broadcast new Spanish-language advertisements showing the president wearing a mask – a tacit admission that his frequent derision of mask-wearing was damaging his standing among at least some of his supporters.
But the president’s rally held outside a Tampa football stadium followed the pattern of his campaign, packing thousands of mostly maskless fans together.
Adding to the irony, Melania Trump told the crowd that her husband and his team were focused on creating ways for people to “start gathering with friends again on safe distances”.
The president’s disregard for masks has alienated many elderly voters, who are critical in Florida, where polls show the race to be more or less tied – and whose 29 votes in the electoral college have proved decisive in the past.
Most electoral analysts argue that it would be virtually impossible for Trump to hold on to the presidency without winning the state.
If Trump wins Florida, it would increase pressure on Biden to win the big battleground states to the north, Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin. The Democratic challenger began the day in Broward county, part of the coastal urban sprawl north of Miami, before crossing the state to Tampa, where he was due to arrive in the evening, a few hours after Trump had departed for North Carolina, one of the traditionally Republican strongholds he is trying to defend against a Democratic surge.
As part of the continuing deliberate contrast with the president’s campaign style, the Biden Broward county event was a socially distanced drive-in at a college campus, where supporters were cautioned not to stray more than an arm’s length from their cars. The evening rally scheduled in Tampa was also a drive-in.
In a new advertisement launched on Thursday, Biden pledged to set up a special taskforce on his first day in office which would be devoted to finding the families of 545 children forcibly separated from their families under Trump immigration policies.
Related: US economy bounces back but deeper trends hint at enduring woe
Data released on Thursday showed GDP had bounced back dramatically in the third quarter of 2020, 33% on an annualized rate in the third quarter after dropping 31% in the second quarter, but the economy was still nearly 4% down compared with the end of 2019.
On Twitter, Trump proclaimed the recovery to be the “Biggest and Best in the History of our Country”. Biden countered that the country was still “in a deep hole” and warned that the recovery was “slowing if not stalling” while benefiting the wealthiest Americans.
Handling of the economy is one of the few issues where Trump holds a lead in public opinion, but it is slipping. On Thursday, the Economist magazine endorsed Biden, saying the president “has desecrated the values that make America a beacon to the world”.
The Republican party, with its candidate running consistently about 10 percentage points behind nationwide and trailing in most battlegrounds, has focused its efforts in crucial swing states on limiting both voter turnout and the duration of vote counting.
On Thursday, those suppression efforts had a mixed day in the courts. The Texas supreme court upheld Governor Greg Abbott’s edict limiting drop box locations for mail-in ballots to one per county. Democrats had argued that the measure was designed to make it harder for voters in big cities. Harris county, which covers most of Houston and has a population the size of New Zealand, had its number of drop boxes reduced from 12 to one.
Related: ‘To me, it’s voter suppression’: the Republican fight to limit ballot boxes
However, the US supreme court rejected a Republican attempt to stop deadline extensions for accepting absentee ballots in Pennsylvania and North Carolina, of three and up to nine days respectively. Amy Coney Barrett, Trump’s new appointee to the court, did not take part in either decision. A court spokesperson said that was because she had not had time to review the case.
The president reacted furiously, claiming on Twitter: “A 3 day extension for Pennsylvania is a disaster for our Nation, and for Pennsylvania itself. The Democrats are trying to steal this Election.”
Democrats have argued the extensions are essential because of the surge in postal ballots and the cost-cutting measures taken by the Trump-appointed head of the national postal service, which have led to slower delivery times.
Biden is due to campaign in Iowa, Wisconsin and Minnesota on Friday and then hold a joint rally with Barack Obama in Michigan on Saturday, the first time they will have campaigned side-by-side this year. Trump will also be campaigning in the north on Friday, in Michigan, Wisconsin and Minnesota.
The former British Brexit politician, Nigel Farage, has been campaigning at the president’s side, appearing in Arizona on Wednesday, where he called Trump “the single most resilient and brave person I have ever met in my life”. The US president returned the favour by describing Farage, who failed in seven attempts to win election to the House of Commons, as “one of the most powerful men in Europe”.