By Jeff Mason and Jarrett Renshaw
GOODYEAR, Ariz./WILMINGTON, Del. (Reuters) - With less than a week before Election Day, President Donald Trump held a pair of in-person campaign rallies in Arizona on Wednesday despite a U.S. surge in COVID-19 cases and criticism he is prioritizing his re-election above the health of his supporters.
The pandemic that has upended life across the United States this year, killing more than 227,000 people and causing millions of job losses, is roaring back in the days leading up to Tuesday's contest between Republican Trump and Democratic challenger Joe Biden.
Biden holds a comfortable lead in national polls, which show a public increasingly dismayed by Trump's handling of the largest public health crisis in U.S. living memory. Polls in battleground states that will likely decide the election are tighter than the national surveys.
At an outdoor rally in Goodyear, Arizona, outside of Phoenix, Trump continued to argue against taking stricter measures against the resurgent virus.
"Biden and the Democrat socialists will delay the vaccine, prolong the pandemic, shutter your schools and shut down our country," Trump told the attendees, who were tightly packed together with just some wearing masks. "And your state is open right? Your state is nice and open."
A number of drugmakers are competing to bring a coronavirus vaccine to market, but one is not expected to be ready before next week's election.
A Trump adviser said the rallies were "priceless" given Biden’s dominance on the ad airwaves.
“These rallies generate significant free media coverage that helps offset whatever money advantage Biden has. Fox News basically runs the whole rallies. It’s a great asset,” the adviser said.
Biden raised about $130 million during the Oct. 1-14 period, about three times the roughly $44 million raised by Trump's campaign, according to disclosures filed last Thursday with the Federal Election Commission.
The adviser said Trump was typically holding rallies in portions of the country where masks are worn less and people are less concerned about the ill effects of COVID-19.
“If you overlay the rallies on a map, you would see they typically run along the same lines of the divide over COVID. So, really, there’s only upside,” the adviser said.
Each of Trump's rallies in recent days has drawn several thousand people.
Kyle Kondik, a political analyst at the University of Virginia's Center for Politics, said the rallies could backfire.
"More exposure doesn't necessarily lead to more votes, and I wonder if some on the fence might be turned off by the total disregard for COVID protocols," Kondik said.
A pro-Biden group, Priorities USA Action, said its recent polling in six battleground states found that when people were told Trump was holding large rallies without mask-wearing requirements, most disapproved.
After a briefing from public health officials on Wednesday, Biden slammed what he called the Trump administration's disregard for safety and failure to develop a plan to contain COVID-19. Polls show Americans trust Biden more than Trump to contain the virus.
"The longer he's in charge the more reckless he gets," Biden told reporters, before casting his own vote in Wilmington, Delaware.
New battleground state polls from Reuters/Ipsos show Biden and Trump in a statistical dead heat in Arizona and in Florida, another key battleground state.
At the Goodyear rally, Trump again suggested, without evidence, that Tuesday's election results could be fraudulent.
"The biggest problem we have is if they cheat with the ballots, that's my biggest problem," the president said. "That's the only thing that I worry about."
In a setback for Republicans in two other battleground states, the U.S. Supreme Court on Wednesday declined to block extensions for receiving mail-in votes in Pennsylvania and North Carolina. Trump has made unfounded claims that voting by mail, a common practice in U.S. elections, leads to widespread fraud.
In all, Trump plans to visit 10 states in the last week of the campaign and will host 11 rallies in the final 48 hours, a campaign official said.
More than 75 million people have cast early in-person and mail ballots, according to data compiled by the U.S. Elections Project at the University of Florida. That is a record-setting pace and more than 53% of the total 2016 turnout.
Trump's running mate, Vice President Mike Pence, campaigned on Wednesday in Wisconsin, a state that could help decide the election.
Wisconsin broke one-day state records in cases and deaths on Tuesday. State officials have asked residents to quarantine voluntarily, wear masks and cancel social gatherings with more than five people.
Epidemiologists say rallies posed grave public health risks during the pandemic because people shout and chant while packed closely together, aiding to the spread of the virus.
"Rallies are perfect places for so-called super-spreader events," said Barun Mathema, an epidemiologist at Columbia University in New York, adding that the risk increases when attendees do not wear masks, which is the case for many of the people attending Trump events.
The Trump campaign was taking all necessary precautions at Pence's event, campaign spokesman Hogan Gidley told CNN.
Asked whether holding a big rally raised safety concerns given that aides to Pence have tested positive and Wisconsin hospitals are near capacity, Gidley said: "No, it doesn't. ... The vice president has the best doctors in the world around him. They've obviously contact traced and come to the conclusion it's fine for him to be out on the campaign trail."
Reuters/Ipsos polling from Oct. 20 to 26 shows Biden with a solid lead over Trump, 53% to 44%, in Wisconsin, with 52% of voters saying Biden would be better suited to handle the pandemic and 38% favoring Trump on the issue.
U.S. stocks tumbled on Wednesday, with the Dow closing at lows last seen in late July, as coronavirus cases soared globally and investors worried about the possibility of a contested presidential election. [L1N2HJ2VQ]
(Reporting by Jeff Mason in Goodyear, Arizona, Jarrett Renshaw in Philadelphia, Ernest Scheyder in Wilmington, Delaware, Doina Chiacu, Jason Lange,, Lawrence Hurley and Joel Schectman in Washington and Andrew Chung in New York; Writing by John Whitesides, Sonya Hepinstall and James Oliphant; Editing by Alistair Bell, Noeleen Walder and Peter Cooney)