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At Newport News rally, Trump attacks Northam, pledges 'heavy play' for Virginia
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At Newport News rally, Trump attacks Northam, pledges 'heavy play' for Virginia

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In his first campaign appearance in Virginia this year, President Donald Trump told the state’s voters Friday night that only by voting for him “can you save your country,” and he launched a wide-ranging attack on Gov. Ralph Northam.

Trump promised voters gathered at Newport News/Williamsburg International Airport to more actively campaign in the state, where he has so far spent little time and money. “We’re going to put a heavy play in for Virginia. We’re going to win this state,” he said.

Early in his speech, Trump called Northam a “crazy” governor, drilling in on his views on late-term abortions, gun control and COVID-19 restrictions.

“I was told not to go for Virginia … and I said, ‘Why not? You’ve got a crazy governor. Every two weeks he’s trying to take your guns,’” Trump said.

“You have a governor that thinks he’s Michael Jackson,” Trump added, referring to Northam’s admission last year that he had worn blackface as part of a costume depicting the pop star during a 1984 dance contest in Texas.

The president’s visit to Virginia came hours after Northam announced that he and his wife, Pam, had tested positive for COVID-19 — likely due to exposure to a sick staffer at the Executive Mansion.

Trump made no mention of Northam’s COVID-19 infection, but said the state’s health restrictions mean people are “not allowed to go to church, not allowed to go to a restaurant, not allowed to go to a friend’s house.” The state’s rules impose no such limits, but do limit the number of people that can gather inside different types of venues.

Reiterating his ongoing concerns about the security of the November elections, Trump, pointed to news out of Fairfax County that 1,000 voters were mailed extra ballots, saying it was “thousands.” Trump also said that several military absentee ballots supporting him were found in a trash can at a Virginia elections office; the incident took place in Pennsylvania.

Trump’s appearance came hours after multiple news outlets confirmed his plans to nominate Amy Coney Barrett, a conservative judge on the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals, to fill the vacancy on the U.S. Supreme Court. Trump did not name names regarding the pick, but said he will announce “somebody great” and hopes she will serve on the court for 50 years.

The event’s location allowed Trump to touch down in Virginia while continuing his energetic pursuit of voters in North Carolina, a key target for the Trump campaign. The Hampton Roads media market extends into the Tarheel State.

Virginia, meanwhile, is leaning more decisively toward former Vice President Joe Biden, in a state where no Republican has won a statewide contest since 2009.

At one point, Trump was joined on stage by Del. Nick Freitas, R-Culpeper, who is challenging U.S. Rep. Abigail Spanberger, D-7th, for her seat.

Trump’s campaign stop is the first in Virginia by either major party candidate during the general election campaign season, signaling Virginia’s status as a lower-priority swing state.

The most recent poll on the race out of Christopher Newport University showed Biden leading Trump by 5 percentage points in the state.

That margin is much smaller than earlier polls showing Biden ahead by as much as 14 points, and is comparable to Hillary Clinton’s 5-point edge over Trump in Virginia four years ago.

Trump made his case for re-election before a crowd of more than 3,000 people, well-above the state’s 250-person limit for gatherings. Images of Friday’s events show little social distancing and mask-wearing by attendees.

In anticipation of the high turnout, state and local health officials had urged the airport and private hangar to reschedule or limit attendance to the event, in a series of letters sent Thursday.

Health officials in Hampton Roads said Thursday that the rally presented a “severe” health risk, and would violate the state’s rules around gathering limits.

Virginia’s COVID-19 trends have held steady in recent weeks as the state’s positivity rate — the percent of positive tests among everyone tested — hovers above 5 percent. The state has seen 144,443 total COVID-19 cases, and 3,136 deaths since the onset of the pandemic.

Asked about Virginia officials’ concerns, Courtney Parella, deputy national press secretary for Trump’s campaign, said in a statement Friday: “If people can riot in the streets, loot from small businesses, or, in the Virginia governor’s case, take a mask-less stroll along the beach, then they can peacefully gather under the First Amendment to hear the President of the United States address the American people.”

Meanwhile, former Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe and former North Carolina Gov. Jim Hunt, both Biden supporters, issued a joint statement condemning the president’s visit.

“President Trump is putting countless Virginians’ lives at risk in order to hold a political rally during a pandemic and prop up his chances in North Carolina,” they said.

mleonor@timesdispatch.com

(804) 649-6254

Twitter: @MelLeonor_

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