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U.S. President Donald Trump, left, speaks during an NBC News town hall event at the Perez Art Museum in Miami, and Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden speaks in an ABC News town hall event at the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia, on Oct. 15, 2020.

BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images

Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden attacked U.S. President Donald Trump’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic on Thursday, as the two candidates held dueling televised town halls after their second planned debate was canceled.

The prime-time split-screen showdown offered a stark reminder of how deeply unusual this year’s campaign has been amid a coronavirus pandemic that has infected nearly eight million Americans, including the President himself. Millions have already voted early ahead of Election Day on Nov. 3.

Mr. Biden, speaking to voters in Philadelphia on ABC, sought to put Mr. Trump’s handling of the pandemic front and centre, blaming the Republican President for playing down the virus that has killed more than 216,000 people in the United States.

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“He said he didn’t tell anybody because he was afraid Americans would panic,” Mr. Biden said in Philadelphia on ABC. “Americans don’t panic. He panicked.”

Political battle lines run deep in the once reliably red state of North Carolina

The Biden and Trump campaigns are borrowing different pages from 2016 playbooks

Mr. Trump defended both his response to the pandemic as well as his own personal conduct, including staging a Rose Garden event at the White House where few wore masks or practiced physical distancing, which resulted in numerous attendees contracting the disease.

“Hey, I’m president - I have to see people, I can’t be in a basement,” Mr. Trump said on NBC in front of an outdoor audience of voters in Miami, implicitly criticizing Mr. Biden for spending months off the campaign trail as the pandemic raged.

Mr. Trump, who aggressively interrupted Mr. Biden during a chaotic debate two weeks ago, showed little interest in altering his belligerent tone.

He said he “heard different stories” about the efficacy of masks, even though his own administration’s public health experts have said wearing them is key to stopping the spread of the virus.

The President also declined to denounce QAnon, the false conspiracy theory that Democrats are part of a global pedophile ring, first praising its adherents for opposing pedophilia before saying he knew nothing about the movement.

The second presidential debate had originally been scheduled for Thursday, but Mr. Trump pulled out of the event after organizers decided to turn it into a virtual affair after his diagnosis two weeks ago. A final debate is still scheduled for Oct. 22 in Nashville.

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Mr. Trump, who spent three days in a military hospital but has since returned to the campaign trail, is trying to alter the dynamics of the race. Reuters/Ipsos polls show Mr. Biden has a significant national lead, although his advantage in battleground states is less pronounced.

North Carolina, a highly competitive state, saw huge lines as it began more than two weeks of in-person early voting on Thursday, after record turnout in Georgia and Texas earlier in the week.

About18.3 million Americans have voted either in person or by mail so far, representing 12.9 per cent of the total votes counted in the 2016 general election, according to the U.S. Elections Project at the University of Florida.

Voters are seeking to avoid in-person lines on Election Day to stay safe as coronavirus infections and hospitalizations continue to rise, but also to make sure their ballots will count. Many are concerned that Mr. Trump will challenge widely used mail-in ballots, after his repeated claims without evidence that they were fraudulent.

Mr. Trump’s narrow 2016 victory depended in large part on late-deciding swing voters who came to his side in the campaign’s waning days. But Reuters/Ipsos polling conducted from Friday to Tuesday shows there are far fewer undecided likely voters this year - around 8 per cent - and they are just as likely to pick Mr. Biden as they are Mr. Trump.

Four years ago at this stage of the campaign, more than twice as many people were similarly wavering between Mr. Trump and his Democratic opponent, Hillary Clinton.

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Perhaps the best measure of Democratic enthusiasm to defeat Mr. Trump is the massive amount of money that has poured into the party’s coffers in recent months.

Democratic fundraising organization ActBlue said on Thursday it collected US$1.5-billion online from July to September, the most it had ever raised in one quarter. By comparison, major Republican fundraising platform WinRed said on Monday that it collected US$623.5-million in the same period.

Mr. Biden’s campaign collected US$383-million in September, setting a new record for a U.S. campaign for the second consecutive month.

Both candidates have been visiting battleground states this week, with Mr. Trump holding rallies in Florida, Pennsylvania and Iowa and Biden travelling to Ohio and Florida.

The U.S. economy tanked in the second quarter owing to the coronavirus pandemic, and at least 25 million remained on jobless benefits at the end of September, Labor Department figures showed on Thursday.

The Biden campaign said on Thursday that three people who travelled with either Biden or Senator Kamala Harris, Mr. Biden’s running mate, had tested positive for COVID-19.

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One of Ms. Harris’s top aides was among those who tested positive, but the campaign said she had not been in close contact. Nevertheless, Ms. Harris cancelled her travel plans through the weekend as a precaution.

Mr. Biden had also been on a plane with an aviation company employee who tested positive but was not in close contact, his campaign said in a statement, and his travel schedule will remained unchanged.

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