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Australian PM seeks voter redemption in by-election

SYDNEY (Reuters) – Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison will on Saturday vie to secure a 100-year first by winning a seat from the opposition at a by-election, a contest that will test how well voters believe his government has handled the dual crises of catastrophic summer bushfires and COVID-19 pandemic.

The sprawling Eden-Monaro electorate on the south coast of New South Wales state was one of the worst hit by fires and some locals jeered Morrison over his handling of the deadly event when he visited the devastation.

The conservative leader was widely criticised for taking his family on holiday to Hawaii as fires raged across the country.

Political polls soon rebounded, however, with Morrison lauded for his handling of the coronavirus pandemic that has seen Australia record about 8,000 infections and 104 deaths – well below other countries.

“By rights, the opposition Labor party should win the seat – but he has turned his standing around dramatically since the bushfires,” said John Hewson, a former leader of the Liberal Party now headed by Morrison.

“If the Liberals win, then coronavirus has changed the landscape.”

Voters in Eden-Monaro – about 478 km (297 miles) south of Sydney – are voting to elect a new parliamentary member after the retirement of an opposition Labor lawmaker due to ill-health. Election campaigns in Eden-Monaro are historically tightly-fought contests.

While a victory for the Liberal candidate, Fiona Kotvojs, won’t change the balance of power in the national parliament, it would be a boon for Morrison, given voters usually lodge protest votes against the sitting government in by-elections.

The last time the opposition lost a by-election to a government candidate was in 1920, in the West Australia state goldfields electorate of Kalgoorlie.

Haydon Manning, a political science specialist at Flinders University in South Australia, said a victory for the Liberal candidate would provide strong momentum ahead of a tricky period ahead navigating an economic recovery out of the pandemic.

The next federal election is due by mid-2022.

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Fearing an election loss, Trump allies push him to be less polarizing

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Some of President Donald Trump’s Republican allies are urging him to ditch his divisive messaging and outline a clear vision for a second term, fearing his handling of a series of crises has dimmed his re-election hopes.

With four months to go before he faces Democrat Joe Biden in a Nov. 3 U.S. election, Trump’s opinion poll numbers have sunk as he struggles to manage the coronavirus pandemic, economic woes and protests over racial injustice.

Speaking on condition of anonymity, allies said Trump was often his own worst enemy. They pointed to him retweeting a video on Sunday that included a supporter shouting, “white power,” a slogan among white supremacists, and then deleting it.

“He has to go back and become an acceptable president and then take the wood to Biden,” said a Republican ally close to the White House.

“People are even actually saying, ‘Does he want this anymore?’” the ally said of fellow Republican supporters. “‘Is he looking for an exit strategy?’”

Trump’s falling poll numbers worry some fellow Republicans they will lose control of the U.S. Senate, having already lost leadership of the House of Representatives in 2018.

The source said perhaps as soon as August, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell may have to advise Republican Senate candidates to distance themselves from Trump if needed to win election and keep their majority.

McConnell’s office did not respond to a request for comment.

Asked about the concerns, White House spokesman Judd Deere said the president “has shown time and again that he’s not afraid to take on the big challenges facing this country” and that Trump and his team are “engaged in an ongoing policy process for a bold second-term agenda.”

Another Republican close to the White House said Trump last week acknowledged privately that he was behind in his race against Biden after a raft of polls showed him losing nationally and in battleground states that will decide the election.

“He knows he’s in trouble,” the Republican source said. “He has no message.”

Hoping to end his slump, Trump is considering making staff changes and ways to broaden his message to draw support beyond his conservative base. Aides say he wants to focus on his ability to lead the country’s economic comeback, his one bright spot in polls. [nL1N2E11F0}

The view inside the White House, however, is that it will be hard for Trump to gain ground until there is more scrutiny of Biden, who has mostly stayed off the campaign trail due to stay-at-home orders during the virus outbreak.

“Until the media starts calling out Joe Biden for just hanging out in his basement, I don’t know how we end this cycle we’re in because we’re the only ones out there taking shots,” said a Republican official familiar with the internal dynamics at the White House.

Biden has said he would prefer in-person campaigning but that relying on virtual events has allowed him to reach more people directly than he would have otherwise.

A DIVISIVE MESSAGE

During a presidency rife with controversy, Trump often has mastered changing the subject – but less so with the spotlight on a months-long pandemic that has killed more than 127,000 Americans and put millions of Americans out of work.

He has further divided the country with a “law-and-order” message that critics say fails to address the twin issues of police brutality and racial inequality at the heart of nationwide street protests.

At campaign events on Tuesday, Biden said the president was pitting Americans against one another instead of leading.

“They’re looking at this appeal to hate and how it’s divided the country. And they’re tired of it,” Biden said of the public’s changing mood.

Some supporters were disappointed last week when Trump did not directly respond when asked by Fox News Channel anchor Sean Hannity, a close friend, to share plans for his second term.

Trump has outlined his plans in broad strokes that include rebuilding the economy and taking on China, but he has yet to specify what he would do with another four years.

“He needs to articulate why he wants a second term,” said the Republican official familiar with internal White House dynamics.

In a memo on Sunday, deputy campaign manager Bill Stepien battled the poor poll numbers by arguing that Trump leads Biden in voter enthusiasm and remains strong in key states according to internal campaign data.

“We know the media loves to play the game of using their public polling to create an unfavorable scenario and to attempt to discourage President Trump’s supporters,” Stepien said. “As we can see from the obvious level of enthusiasm among Republicans, especially as compared to Joe Biden’s situation, it is not working.”

The latest Reuters/Ipsos poll, conducted this week online, gave Biden an advantage of 8 percentage points over Trump in support among registered voters. Biden had a 10-point edge in a similar poll last week.

With his signature, large-scale rallies sidelined by fears of COVID-19 infections, Trump has been considering doing media interviews beyond conservative Fox News, his usual venue, one ally said.

There have been some discussions of increasing the role of senior adviser Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law, who is already heavily involved in the campaign, two officials said.

On Wednesday, a source confirmed that Michael Glassner, who organized Trump’s rallies, had been “reassigned” as a legal adviser for the campaign following the disappointing rally last month in Tulsa.

Trump’s 2016 Arizona chairman, Jeff DeWit, will join the campaign as chief operating officer to oversee the final stretch to Election Day, the source said.

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Biden attacks Trump's handling of COVID-19 as U.S. cases rise

WILMINGTON, Del. (Reuters) – Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden on Tuesday launched a fresh attack on President Donald Trump’s “historic mismanagement” of the coronavirus pandemic as the number of confirmed cases in many states rises.

Speaking in his hometown of Wilmington, Delaware, the former vice president argued that earlier action by Trump would have reduced the number who fell ill and the economic impact of the virus.

“The American people don’t make enormous sacrifices over the past four months so … you can waste all their efforts they have undertaken with your midnight rantings and tweets,” said Biden, who delivered the speech to reporters in a high school gymnasium.

Biden released an updated plan to tackle the pandemic, which would include more COVID-19 testing and hiring at least 100,000 contract tracers.

He predicted that the coronavirus outbreak would likely worsen with the onset of the flu season, and said preparations should include more flu vaccines.

Biden said that, if elected, he would ask the federal government’s top disease expert, Dr. Anthony Fauci, to serve another term.

Trump and his allies say the toll of the virus – which has killed more than 126,000 Americans, according to a Reuters tally – could have been larger without travel bans he put in place for visitors from China, and later from Europe.

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They have argued the increasing confirmed cases in recent weeks are largely attributable to more testing, although the rate of positive tests has also been rising.

Trump campaign spokeswoman Courtney Parella said Biden was “fearmongering and rooting against America’s success” while Trump led a public and private-sector mobilization that had slowed the spread of the virus.

The Republican president is trailing Biden in opinion polls ahead of the Nov. 3 election amid the pandemic’s health and economic crises, and nationwide protests against police brutality.

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Biden says he will consider asking for a classified briefing on possible Russian bounties

WILMINGTON, Del. (Reuters) – Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden said on Tuesday he will consider asking for a classified briefing on allegations that Russia offered bounties for the killing of American troops in Afghanistan.

Democratic lawmakers are seeking more information on the claims, after the New York Times reported that President Donald Trump had received a written intelligence briefing on the suspected Russian program in late February.

“If it doesn’t get cleared up quickly, I will seek and ask if I can be briefed,” Biden said during a press briefing in Wilmington, Delaware.

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Polish president comes top in election first round: final results

WARSAW (Reuters) – Poland’s President Andrzej Duda got the most votes in the first round of the country’s presidential election, final results showed on Tuesday, as the focus turned to what looks set to be a close-fought run-off vote on July 12.

Duda, an ally of the ruling nationalist Law and Justice (PiS) party, got 43.50% of the vote, the results showed.

Liberal Warsaw Mayor Rafal Trzaskowski, who is standing for the largest opposition party, the centrist Civic Platform (PO), came second with 30.46%.

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Poles face long lines, coronavirus limits in presidential vote

WARSAW (Reuters) – Poles stood in long lines to vote on Sunday in a closely-fought presidential election that could reshape Poland’s tense relationship with the European Union and the ruling nationalists’ socially conservative agenda.

The ballot takes place seven weeks later than originally scheduled because of the COVID-19 pandemic, although Poland has had relatively few cases and deaths.

Poland’s electoral commission apologised on Sunday for the restrictions at polling stations to stem the spread of the novel coronavirus, which include wearing masks, maintaining social distance and asking voters to bring their own pens.

“The pandemic is independent of electoral commissions, but the introduction of sanitary rigours means the speed at which one can vote is reduced,” Sylwester Marciniak, the head of Poland’s National Electoral Commission, said.

Many Poles abroad seeking a postal ballot said they had not received their voting slips in time to vote.

“It is a shame that as a result of the pandemic…not everyone got their (election) package on time,” Poland’s Ambassador to Britain Arkady Rzegocki tweeted.

Incumbent Andrzej Duda, 48, has vowed to maintain the ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party’s economic programmes, which include generous social spending and a pledge to protect family values in the predominantly Catholic country.

“We don’t see the same standard of living as in western Europe and this is what I would like to achieve,” Duda said in the southwestern town of Rybnik on Friday during one of his last campaign stops before the election.

His main challenger, centrist Warsaw mayor Rafal Trzaskowski, also 48, seeks to provide a progressive alternative and to fight Poland’s isolation in the EU after five years of conflict between the government and Brussels.

As mayor, Trzaskowski has proposed sex education programmes in line with World Health Organization recommendations for schools, a move the PiS criticised as an effort to sexualise children.

CLASH OF VALUES

Since the PiS came to power in 2015, the European Commission, the EU executive, has launched an unprecedented legal action against Warsaw following criticism Poland is subverting democratic norms by politicising its courts.

If Duda fails to secure a second five-year mandate, his successor could hamper the government’s ability to deepen its justice reforms by vetoing laws or refusing to nominate judges picked by PiS allies.

This would likely fuel tensions within the PiS’ fragile parliamentary coalition and could force Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki’s government to rule as a minority cabinet. An early national election can’t be ruled out.

Polling stations close at 9.00 p.m. (1900 GMT), when exit polls will be published. If no candidate wins more than 50% of the votes, the two with the biggest share will compete in a second round on July 12.

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France returns to polls for municipal elections, Macron faces drubbing

PARIS (Reuters) – France emerges from months of coronavirus lockdown to vote on Sunday in a delayed second round of municipal elections, with opinion polls suggesting a dire outcome for President Emmanuel Macron, whose party could fail to win in any big city.

A year ago Macron had hoped the local elections would help anchor his young party in towns and cities across France, including Paris, ahead of an anticipated 2022 re-election bid. But more recently, presidential aides have been playing down expectations.

In the capital, the election’s biggest prize, the sitting socialist mayor Anne Hidalgo is on track for a comfortable win after a shambolic campaign by Macron and his La Republique en Marche (LaRem) party.

Meanwhile, the Greens are projected to do well in cities such as Lyon, Marseille and Bordeaux, sometimes in alliance with the Left, building on momentum they created in 2019’s European elections. In Perpignan, Marine Le Pen’s far-right party may take control of its first city with a population over 100,000.

France pressed ahead with the first round of the municipal elections in mid-March, less than 48 hours before Macron imposed one of Europe’s strictest lockdowns, forcing a long delay before the second round.

“We’ll be careful. We can always bring our own pen, wear a mask and use sanitizer gel,” remarked Paris pensioner Christian Courtot.

Macron has said he will “reinvent” his presidency and present a detailed plan next month for the final two years of his mandate.

A government reshuffle is widely expected, with the biggest question-mark over the future of Macron’s popular prime minister, Edouard Philippe. Philippe is running for his old job as mayor of Le Havre.

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Trump team looks to revamp rallies after being rattled by Tulsa event

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – President Donald Trump’s campaign is considering a new approach to his signature rallies to ease fears about the coronavirus and has not ruled out staff changes after his disappointing return to the trail in Oklahoma, advisers say.

Other strategic shifts, including reinvigorating attacks on Democratic candidate Joe Biden, also are on the table as Trump trails his opponent in national polls ahead of the Nov. 3 election amid dissatisfaction over his response to the pandemic and U.S. civil rights protests.

The campaign had predicted Trump’s rally in Tulsa on Saturday would draw a record turnout. Instead, the 19,000-seat arena had thousands of empty seats, prompting the president to remark later: “How could this happen?” according to a Trump adviser.

The poor turnout has prompted discussion of whether some changes might be needed in the top tier of the campaign organization, two outside advisers said. They cautioned that it was unclear whether action would be taken.

Another adviser with knowledge of the campaign’s strategy said campaign manager Brad Parscale had appeared to be on thin ice in recent weeks and could take the blame after the underwhelming event.

“Donald Trump knows how much that rally cost, and there was no return on the investment. Someone is going to pay for this,” that adviser said.

Other advisers said, however, that Parscale’s job appeared to be safe and played down speculation of a shake-up.

Trump campaign spokeswoman Erin Perrine said: “Brad has built an excellent team and is doing a great job. He has a strong, 10-year relationship with the president and the entire Trump family.”

Concern about the virus, accompanying protests and media coverage about the risks led to fewer people showing up at the rally, campaign officials said. That reality has led the Trump team to consider using outdoor venues such as airplane hangars for future “Make America Great Again” rallies, which helped propel Trump to the White House in 2016.

The campaign is moving forward with smaller events in states including Pennsylvania, Ohio and Michigan, said the adviser with knowledge of the campaign’s strategy. Trump will travel to battleground state Wisconsin on Thursday.

But rallies are on hold at least for a couple weeks, the adviser said, adding that rules requiring participants in Oklahoma to waive their right to sue if they caught the virus had given some people pause.

“They want to get back to the rallies as quickly as possible, but with the current environment, it’s hard,” said the adviser, who participated in a call with campaign staff on Wednesday.

Jason Miller, who recently joined the campaign as a senior adviser, said locations and venues for future rallies would depend on relevant states’ guidelines and progress in reopening their economies from the virus-induced shutdown.

“We’re pushing full speed ahead with opportunities to put the president in front of as many people as possible,” Miller said.

FOCUS ON ECONOMY, BIDEN

Trump has spent recent days attacking his former national security adviser John Bolton, which some viewed as helpful to his campaign because it was seen as an attack on the “swamp.”

But one White House official said it was a distraction from a more effective message about boosting the economy. Reuters/Ipsos polling has shown more voters view Trump as a better steward of the economy than Biden.

“If Americans are making a decision about who can best lead … an economic comeback, that’s the safest terrain for the president,” the official said.

Polling shows Trump is losing support among suburban women. The campaign is seeking to fix that deficit and focus more on defining Biden, the former vice president under President Barack Obama, who has avoided large public events during the pandemic.

Trump advisers repeatedly underscored the fact that there was plenty of time for course correction before the November election.

The 2016 campaign included multiple staff shake-ups and campaign managers. Trump’s first, Corey Lewandowski, was fired on June 20 of that year.

Staffing changes this time around are up in the air. The campaign said this week that White House spokesman Hogan Gidley would be joining the re-election effort as national press secretary.

One outside adviser said there were discussions about expanding Miller’s role.

In addition, that adviser said, Trump himself has frequently brought up for praise former strategist Steve Bannon, who is credited with helping Trump win Michigan and other crucial Midwestern states in 2016. Trump fired Bannon from the White House nearly three years ago, but Bannon has remained a loyalist. 

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'How to lose an election': Macron gets it all wrong in Paris

PARIS (Reuters) – President Emmanuel Macron was surveying a glacier in the French Alps on a visit in February when an aide forwarded a video that had just been posted online, showing his choice for Paris mayor masturbating.

Benjamin Griveaux’s campaign was already floundering, a month out from the first round of the election, and his naiveté in falling for a simple sting meant Macron had to choose: back a loyal and trusted ally, or sack him.

“Be there for him,” Macron told advisers, according to a member of his inner circle. “And if he decides to press on, circle the wagons.”

Macron has consistently rewarded the early backers of his 2017 bid for the presidency, party insiders say. But within 48 hours, Griveaux had stood down, leaving Macron’s hopes of winning the capital in tatters.

Interviews with more than a dozen ministers, presidential aides and party insiders who spoke on condition of anonymity reveal how miscalculations cost him dear, and portray a leader who can put loyalty before competence and fail to judge character.

Macron had hoped that local elections would provide the grassroots base that his young centrist party, LaRem, lacks ahead of his 2022 re-election bid.

And Paris’s City Hall, long in the grip of the left, seemed there for the taking.

The capital welcomed the former investment banker into the Elysee Palace with open arms in 2017. One in three Parisian voters backed LaRem in last year’s European elections.

And a year ago, before Griveaux’s nomination, incumbent Socialist mayor Anne Hidalgo was deeply unpopular for her efforts to reduce traffic in the capital, and surveys showed a Macron candidate beating her.

TURNING GOLD TO LEAD

Now, three days before Sunday’s nationwide municipal elections, Macron’s stand-in candidate, former health minister Agnes Buzyn, is polling more than 20 points behind Hidalgo, seemingly having lost ground since the first round in March.

One disgruntled LaRem lawmaker put it simply: “We had gold in our hands and we turned it to lead.”

LaRem’s campaign crumbled with the sting on Griveaux, but the seeds of defeat had been sown months earlier, with Griveaux’s selection.

The 42-year-old was one of the ‘Macron Boys’, the clique that helped propel the president to power. In July 2019, a LaRem committee picked him over Cedric Villani, an eccentric maths genius known for his spider brooches and silk cravats.

But many saw Griveaux, who served as Macron’s first government spokesman, as arrogant and patronising.

When the video was posted – by a Russian protest artist whose girlfriend had lured Griveaux into sending the video – few in the party rallied round him.

“He wasn’t liked. Neither by the public, nor by party members,” said an official inside LaRem. “The time has come when you have to say it like it is.”

MATHS MAVERICK

To be sure, Macron’s own popularity had slumped during months of anti-government ‘yellow vest’ protests in early 2019, which were driven by public anger at a leader seen as aloof. It fell again last winter during weeks of demonstrations against pension reforms, and transport strikes.

But Macron’s confidant compared the loyalty to Griveaux to an alliance forged in war.

“It’s like (French wartime resistance leader) De Gaulle and the Communists: They had nothing in common but, 20 years later, once he was in the Elysee, the General still took calls from those who had been with him in London.”

Macron also underestimated Villani, winner of a Fields Medal, mathematics’ equivalent of a Nobel Prize.

Villani had entered politics, and parliament, in 2017 with LaRem but, after being rejected as its mayoral candidate, decided to run as an independent, and ate into Griveaux’s support.

Party officials urged Macron to offer Villani an incentive to drop his maverick campaign, reminiscent of Macron’s own rise to power, or eject him from the party.

But the president held back, telling a small group of reporters that “emulation” was a positive. Socialist and conservative rivals gleefully pointed to the disunity.

Two sources close to Macron said he had believed Villani’s bid would naturally fade.

It was only in January, when Griveaux slipped to third in surveys, with Villani further behind, that Macron summoned the mathematician. Even then, he failed to change Villani’s mind.

As one government minister put it: “We’ve done almost everything we shouldn’t have done. It could end up as a handy guide: ‘How to lose an election’.”

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Virus concerns prompt Democrats to hold largely virtual nominating convention

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Democrats will hold a largely virtual convention in August to nominate Joe Biden as their presidential candidate, the party said on Wednesday, with Biden giving his acceptance speech in person in Milwaukee, but state delegations staying home.

The decision comes as novel coronavirus cases are spiking in several states nationwide, including California, Florida and Texas, further upending the 2020 presidential race.

Republicans, in contrast, plan to hold a largely in-person event in Jacksonville, Florida, in August, intending to have President Donald Trump accept his nomination on Aug. 27 before thousands in an indoor arena.

The Republicans moved the speech from Charlotte, North Carolina, after the state’s Democratic governor refused to relax social-distancing rules aimed at curbing the coronavirus.

It was not clear if Biden’s speech, expected for Aug. 20 at a Milwaukee convention center, would have a live audience.

Biden, who was vice president for eight years under Barack Obama, has been critical of Trump’s handling of the coronavirus, saying he has pressed states such as Florida to reopen their economies too quickly and disregarded health and safety concerns.

After holding a rally at an arena in Tulsa, Oklahoma, on Saturday, Trump spoke at a campaign event on Tuesday in Arizona, another state being hit hard by a surge of coronavirus cases.

“Leadership means being able to adapt to any situation,” Tom Perez, chair of the Democratic National Committee, said in a statement. “That’s exactly what we’ve done with our convention. Unlike this president, Joe Biden and Democrats are committed to protecting the health and safety of the American people.”

Milwaukee was originally chosen as the site of the convention because Wisconsin is a battleground state in the Nov. 3 general election. Opinion polls show Biden with a lead over Trump there. Trump’s victory in Wisconsin in 2016 helped propel him to the presidency.

Delegates will conduct all convention business remotely, including casting their votes for Biden as the nominee, the party said.

A poll conducted by the University of North Florida released on Wednesday found that almost 60 percent of Jacksonville residents opposed the Republican convention being held in their city. Respondents cited concerns over the coronavirus and potential protests over racial justice and police brutality.

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