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How Trump's COVID-19 Diagnosis May Affect The Presidential Election

NOEL KING, HOST:

We are four weeks and one day out from Election Day. Of course, millions of Americans have already voted. But how has President Trump's hospitalization with COVID-19 changed the campaign? He's been in Walter Reed, of course, since Friday. Since then, he's posted two videos and did a quick drive-by to wave at his supporters outside the hospital. But his diagnosis does seem to have made a difference in public opinion, at least according to some polls. We have two strategists with us now. Scott Jennings is an adviser to Sen. Mitch McConnell, and Karen Finney worked for Hillary Clinton's 2016 campaign. Good morning to you both.

KAREN FINNEY: Good morning.

SCOTT JENNINGS: Good morning.

KING: So, Scott, some early polling suggests a majority of Americans think the president just did not take this virus seriously enough before he got it. How big of a problem is that for him?

JENNINGS: Well, the coronavirus issue in general was already a major issue in the campaign. It's obviously been the biggest issue in the country this year, and his task was to try to focus on other things. But his getting it obviously ensures that coronavirus will be the No. 1 issue. And so whatever thoughts they had of putting the economy No. 1 or other things at the top of the minds of voters before Election Day, you know, that's obviously out the window. And given that his job approval on coronavirus is lower than he would like it to be, it's obviously a political problem.

KING: What do you think the president is messaging at this point? With the videos, with the drive by, he's clearly, you know, appealing to his supporters. But more broadly, what's he telling the American people?

JENNINGS: Well, I think he wants to show the American people that he's doing OK. I mean, over the weekend, we saw some contradictory statements about his health, and he wanted to show the American people that he's doing OK. And he looked OK to me in the video, and I think that was (laughter) - that was the message he wanted to deliver, not just for political reasons and not just for domestic reasons. But, you know, I think the people of the world always look to see, how is the American president doing? And given some of the contradictory statements we saw, I think it was a good idea for him to show that he's doing OK.

KING: Karen, let me turn this over to you. Joe Biden's campaign has pulled all of its negative ads against President Trump. They did that after he got sick. What is Joe Biden's messaging here?

KARE FINNEY: I think they did it actually just as he - it was announced he was diagnosed. But I think they've taken the right tone. But I think it's important - you know, as Scott said, COVID is going to continue to be front and center because it is front and center in the lives of the American people. And it is connected to the economy. I mean, it's our health care. It's our economy. It's our future. And certainly, seeing the president diagnosed with COVID, it adds to, I think, scaring the American people.

KING: Scott, let me go to you. What do you think of the Biden campaign saying, look; no more negative ads, no more attack ads against President Trump? One thing I'm wondering is, is the Biden campaign feeling so confident that they don't need to attack President Trump anymore?

JENNINGS: I think it was an easy headline for them to get. You know, they think they're winning right now. And I'm not one that believes television ads at the presidential campaign level make all that big of a difference anyway. I think that the brighter the lights in politics, then the less the ads matter. So it was an easy PR win for them to score. At some point, though, you know, both sides - the campaign's going to have to have some normalcy to it, even if President Trump is sick for a few more days. But it was a smart - as a strategy - putting my strategist hat on, not my Republican hat, it was a (laughter) - it was a smart tactical move.

KING: How does the campaign have some normalcy with the president of the United States in the hospital and conflicting information over how sick he is?

JENNINGS: Well, that's a great question. And I think some of the things we don't know the answer to are, how will the upcoming presidential debates work? Will Donald Trump be able to have in-person events? And frankly, some of the questions that I have revolve around, what is Mike Pence going to be able to do, the vice president? I mean, at some point, you have the campaign but also the governance and the continuity of government. And so, you know, is it appropriate for him to be out, putting himself in harm's way? And so I think you raise an excellent question that we don't have all the answers to.

But I do think the American people want both parties to be able to put forward their best message in October so that we can make a decision. And by the way, millions of people have ballots in hand right now. I mean, decisions are being made. Heck, I dropped mine in the mail this weekend (laughter). And so people are deciding right now. And so I think the people wishing for the campaign to just end, that's not appropriate either because both parties do need to finish this campaign and finish off their messaging arc for the American voters.

KING: (Unintelligible) On Wednesday, Vice President Mike Pence and Sen. Kamala Harris will debate each other. Vice presidential debates typically don't matter a whole lot. Let me ask each of you, does this one matter more now? Karen, let me start with you.

KARE FINNEY: Well, I think there's going to be - there was always going to be a lot of interest in this because it's historic in this particular debate but even more so now because this will be, in some ways, the first real official response, if you will, at length to what's happening right now at the White House and with the Trump administration regarding COVID-19 because of the president's illness. And as Scott mentioned, over the weekend we've had so much conflicting information. Perhaps they'll clean that up, you know, before Wednesday. But again, I think it is - and look, in part because the debate last week - let's be frank - I don't think people heard enough of, you know, what's the plan again.

And so I think on Wednesday, what's important is certainly folks will be looking to, you know, both sides to use the time, I think, to lay out, again, here's our plan on COVID and other key issues that are impacting us right now. And look; I think people will also be looking at Mike Pence. As I say, I think the stakes are high for him because he was also the czar of the COVID task force.

KING: What does Kamala Harris need to do in this debate?

KARE FINNEY: I think she - you know, she needs to put forward and be very clear with the American people and tell the truth - which I think she will and I think that will be a challenge for Mike Pence - about the plans that the Biden-Harris team has for this country. It is - you know, yes, it is about COVID. It is about our economy and getting us back on track, about how we get - how we reopen businesses, how we repair our relationships around the world. So she's got to be there and be the trusted leader who can, you know, lay out the plan.

KING: Last question for each of you. We have about 10 seconds. Numerous polls show most Americans think in-person campaign events should be canceled. Should they be? Scott, start with you.

JENNINGS: I think that any event where you're not able to take the precautions that you need to take, you got to bag it. I think you can still do some things 'cause we're obviously having some normal life in America, but large-scale campaign events are obviously very dangerous.

KING: Karen, real quick, what do you think?

KARE FINNEY: Agreed. We shouldn't be doing anything that puts people's health and life at risk and in danger as we've seen the president do.

KING: Democratic strategist Karen Finney and Republican strategist Scott Jennings. Thanks to you both.

JENNINGS: Thank you.

KARE FINNEY: Thanks.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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