Trump draws 20,000 in battleground North Carolina

US President Donald Trump addressing supporters during a rally in North Carolina on Oct 21, 2020.
US President Donald Trump addressing supporters during a rally in North Carolina on Oct 21, 2020.PHOTO: AFP

GASTONIA, NORTH CAROLINA - If US President Donald Trump wins a second term, it will be because of people like 33-year-old Nicholas van Orden, whose carpentry and house-frame business began thriving when the real estate tycoon won the White House in 2016.

It will also be because of people like Vietnamese-American Eric Le, 55, who fled communism and now owns a nail salon - and appreciates that Mr Trump is taking a stand against communist China.

And it will be because of 65-year-old former marine James Crow, standing on a grassy verge on a balmy North Carolina night using his mobile phone to watch Mr Trump speaking to a crowd of roughly 20,000, organisers said, in the tiny, quaint Gastonia Municipal airport a couple of miles up the road.

"I got a raise after he got elected," says Mr Crow, who works as a pick-up and delivery driver. "The company I work for was in trouble. Then they got a loan.

"He has already made America great again. I don't agree with everything he says, but I agree with his policies. Veterans' hospitals are being built everywhere. He's done more for veterans than anyone. And I am pro-law and order and pro-life as well. That's very important."

The Gastonia rally came on the eve of the third and final presidential debate in Nashville, Tennessee.

The debate will be in person but with changes to avoid the shouting match that the first one turned into. The candidate who is not speaking will have his microphones muted so he cannot interrupt the other and the audience must wear masks.

In the first debate, the Trump family was among those who waved away masks. Later, the President himself was struck with Covid-19 and it remains unclear whether he already had the coronavirus at the debate itself.

The Gastonia rally came just 12 days before the election, and on the same day the Democratic Party turned up the heat, bringing former president Barack Obama into the campaign with a fiery rally in Philadelphia.

The hope is to energise the so-called "Obama coalition" of African-American and northern white voters which swept him to power in 2008 but significantly failed to turn out for Mrs Hillary Clinton in 2016.

And Mr Biden's running mate, Senator Kamala Harris, was speaking in Charlotte, North Carolina - just a short drive up the road from Gastonia, where Mr Trump poured scorn on Mr Obama, to the delight of the crowd that booed at every mention of the Democrats' names.

Mentioning his 2016 win, Mr Trump said: "There was nobody that campaigned harder for crooked Hillary Clinton than Obama, right? He was all over the place.

"I think the only one more unhappy than crooked Hillary that night was Barack Hussein Obama."

The President hammered home his standard pitch - the booming pre-pandemic economy, law and order, capitalism and American values versus socialism and anarchy.

"We will stop the radical indoctrination of our students" he pledged.

The messages went down well with Ms Deirdre Looney, who works for a moving company.

Ms Looney, 28, is a Covid survivor. "It was awful. It is real. It's just not what people are making it out to be.

"We're not being told the truth about it, and that's not Donald Trump's fault," she insisted, blaming instead the Centres for Disease Control and the country's top epidemiology expert, Dr Anthony Fauci, whose disagreements with Mr Trump have become more evident.

In a conference call with campaign staff on Monday, Mr Trump called Dr Fauci "a disaster" and said that people were "tired" of hearing about the virus from "these idiots" in the government.

But every Trump supporter, including Ms Looney, gives the President a pass.

"This is a plan to ruin the economy, which has happened in North Carolina," Ms Looney told The Straits Times, proudly wearing her "Women for Trump" paraphernalia. "Half the bars downtown can't open."

Mr Trump's attitude also doesn't faze his supporters. "He knows how to get people bent out of shape," said Mr Crow, the former marine. "He can answer any question and sound like he is winning. That's part of being a negotiator.

"For example, when he says '12 more years' to the crowds, everyone knows he doesn't mean it but it gets the Democrats all riled up."

College student Sergio Smith, 23, told The Straits Times: "He's been a good president. I like what he did with the economy. And I'm a Catholic; I'm against abortion."

Again and again, supporters pointed to Mr Trump not being a career politician as a huge plus.

"He's a businessman, he's a can do guy," Mr Graham Pitt, a 70-year-old retired financial adviser, told The Straits Times.

"I told my wife... we'll never see something like this again in our lifetime, a politician or someone running for political office, like we saw tonight. The people love him, and he loves the people."

It was his third Trump rally, he said: "I've been on the Trump train since the get-go. He's done everything he said he was going to do, and then some."

Toss-up states the focus in final days

With less than two weeks to go for the election, and in a tight race in several key states, President Donald Trump hit two battlegrounds, Pennsylvania and North Carolina, for rallies on Tuesday (Oct 20) and Wednesday.

According to the Five Thirty Eight website's average of polls, Democratic Party candidate Joe Biden, who leads Mr Trump nationally, has a slim 6.3-point lead over the President in Pennsylvania.

In North Carolina, Mr Biden leads by an even slimmer 3.1 points, making it a toss-up.

Pennsylvania has 20 Electoral College votes. In 2016, then candidate Trump won the state by a margin of just 44,292 votes out of more than six million cast.

The 0.72 per cent margin was the narrowest in a presidential election for the state in 176 years, and ended a run of six straight Democratic victories there. It is Mr Biden's home state, but he long ago moved to Delaware, from where he won his Senate seat - a point that Mr Trump frequently emphasises when rallying in Pennsylvania.

North Carolina is a critical battleground: Former president Barack Obama also won it only narrowly in 2008; Mr Trump turned it in 2016, winning by an only slightly wider than Pennsylvania - 3.66 per cent.

The state has 15 Electoral College votes. But analysts say demographic changes - in line with greater diversity in the US as a whole - favour Mr Biden in the state.

The Real Clear Politics analytical website's projections still show Mr Biden ahead in the Electoral College - where 270 is the majority required to win the White House - with a projected 232 with Mr Trump projected at 125.

But as many as 181 Electoral College votes are still rated toss-ups.

Separately the Cook Political Report rates six states in this category: Arizona (11 Electoral College votes); Florida (29); Michigan (16); North Carolina (15); Pennsylvania (20); and Wisconsin (10).