Early voting kicked off Monday in Florida, a pivotal state fought over relentlessly by President Donald Trump and Democratic challenger Joe Biden as their contentious White House race enters its final 15-day stretch.
Record numbers of Americans have already cast ballots in person or by mail -- 28.6 million, according to one tracker -- ahead of the November 3 election, as the rivals race from one swing state to another to marshal support.
The election is rapidly boiling down to whether voters see Trump as best placed to revive an economy laid low by the coronavirus, or they believe the president has exacerbated the pandemic and want Biden to fulfill his pledge to unify a divided country.
The battle has played out in eight or nine swing states for months, but perhaps nowhere more intensely than Florida, the largest up-for-grabs prize of them all, delivering 29 of the state-by-state Electoral College votes that decide who wins the White House.
Early morning rain across parts of southern Florida appeared to not deter voters who lined up wearing masks and at a respectful social distance for the start of in-person voting.
At a Miami Beach polling station, Jackeline Maurice, a writer in her 40s, was excitedly snapping selfies with an "I voted" sticker on after casting her ballot for Biden.
"I've been waiting four years to vote," she said.
Maurice said she was "cautiously optimistic" about the 77-year-old Democrat's prospects.
As for Trump, she said the diehards in his base "love him, but the rest of America does not."
Nationwide, Biden leads Trump by 8.9 percentage points, according to a RealClearPolitics average of polls, and the Democrat has a sizeable lead in half a dozen battleground states.
But the Florida race is tightening down to a knife edge; statewide polls shows Biden ahead by an average of 1.4 percentage points -- compared to 4.5 points less than two weeks ago.
The increasingly diverse state is a bellwether, having voted for the candidate who ultimately won the presidency in 18 of the past 20 elections -- including for Republican Trump in 2016.
Biden, fresh off a pair of events in North Carolina, another state Democrats want to flip, dispatched running mate Kamala Harris to Florida for a drive-in rally in Orlando, followed by a voter mobilization event in Jacksonville.
"15 days. Let's finish strong," Biden tweeted.
"Together, we can put an end to the last four years of darkness, division, and chaos. We can unite, mend our wounds, and begin to heal."
- 'Stupid people' -
Trump is in the midst of a western campaign swing, and flies on Air Force One from Nevada to Arizona later Monday for a pair of "Make America Great Again" rallies in Prescott and Tucson.
Arizona backed Trump in 2016 but he trails Biden by about three percentage points in polling there.
If recent rallies are any indication, there will be little social distancing, with many attendees not wearing masks, contradicting coronavirus guidelines set forth by scientists in Trump's own administration.
The 74-year-old president's packed campaign schedule has appeared to belie any doubts about his own recovery from the virus, and his message has -- if anything -- grown more pointed.
On Sunday in Nevada he trained fire on one of his own, Republican Senator Ben Sasse, who was recorded criticizing the president to constituents.
"We have some stupid people," Trump said at a rally in Carson City, Nevada's capital.
"We have this guy Sasse, you know, wants to make a statement," he added. "The Republicans have to stick together better."
But Republicans have begun warning of substantial losses including in congressional races.
Senator Ted Cruz earlier this month warned there could be a "bloodbath," while close Trump ally Senator Lindsey Graham recently said Democrats have a "good chance" at winning the White House.
In Nevada Trump ramped up his Biden attacks, again raising a disputed allegation that messages on a laptop computer belonging to Biden's son Hunter implicated the former vice president in corrupt links to Ukraine, calling it a "proven fact."
Biden's campaign rejects the allegations as a "smear campaign" and an attempt to distract from Trump's handling of the Covid-19 pandemic which has killed nearly 220,000 Americans, and is now spreading in many states at rates unseen in months.
© 2020 AFP