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Trump rejects virtual debate, says may hold a campaign rally on Saturday

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Donald Trump added more turbulence to the U.S. election campaign on Thursday, pulling out of an Oct. 15 debate with Democratic rival Joe Biden after it was changed to a virtual event and saying he may hold a rally in Florida on Saturday.

Trump, who was hospitalized for three days after disclosing last Friday he had tested positive for the novel coronavirus, blasted the format change announced by the nonpartisan commission in charge of the debates and expressed concern his microphone could be cut off.

“I’m not going to waste my time on a virtual debate. That’s not what debating is all about,” Trump said in a nearly hour-long phone morning interview with Fox Business. “You sit behind a computer and do a debate - it’s ridiculous, and then they cut you off whenever they want.”

On Thursday night, he told Fox News he was feeling “really good” and might return to the campaign trail on Saturday night, possibly with a rally in Florida. His physician said in a memo Trump had completed his course of therapy and could return to public engagements on Saturday.

Trump said he would likely get tested for COVID-19 on Friday.

Trump’s decision not to participate in a virtual debate means the second and final debate between the two White House contenders will be on Oct. 22, less than two weeks before the Nov. 3 election. In lieu of the Oct. 15 debate, Biden’s campaign quickly arranged a town hall-style event in Philadelphia that night to be hosted by ABC News.

The chairman of the debate commission, Frank Fahrenkopf, told the Associated Press the switch to a virtual format was not being reconsidered.

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Some Trump advisers questioned his decision not to participate in the new debate format, arguing he would miss an opportunity to make his case to millions of voters tuned in, a source familiar with the situation said.

With Trump’s handling of the pandemic dominating the campaign, a new Reuters/Ipsos poll showed Americans are steadily losing confidence in how the president has managed the health crisis with his net approval on the issue hitting a record low.

The poll taken Tuesday through Thursday found 37% of American adults approved of Trump’s handling of the pandemic and 59% disapproved. The net approval rating of negative 22 percentage points is the lowest in the poll dating back to March 2 and has steadily declined over the last 10 days.

Trump’s rejection of the shift in the debate format sparked a flurry of statements back and forth between the two camps. Trump’s campaign proposed holding another debate on Oct. 29, which Biden’s campaign rejected.

“We set the dates. I’m sticking with the dates,” Biden told reporters. “I’m showing up. I’ll be there. And in fact, if he shows up, fine; if he doesn’t, fine.”

Even before his illness was announced, Trump’s performance in the chaotic first debate with Biden last week prompted calls for a change in format. Trump constantly interrupted and talked over both Biden and the moderator.

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Some had proposed giving the moderator in future debates the power to cut off any candidate who disrupted the proceedings. The debate commission said nothing about muting the participants in its announcement, while describing the new format as needed “to protect the health and safety of all involved.”

As Election Day approaches, early voting has exceeded records. More than 6 million ballots have been cast as Americans change their behavior to avoid possible infection at polling places amid a pandemic that has killed more than 210,000 Americans.

Opinion polls show Biden leading Trump nationally, though the race appears closer in battleground states that could decide the outcome.

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‘I’D LOVE TO DO A RALLY’

Saying he was feeling “really good,” Trump said on Fox that he was ready to resume campaign rallies. Such rallies, particularly held indoors, have raised concern among public health experts about spreading the virus.

“I’d love to do a rally tonight. I wanted to do one last night,” Trump said, adding that “if I’m at a rally, I stand by myself very far away from everybody.”

Trump has not been seen in public since he returned to the White House from the hospital, although he has released several videos.

U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines say people who are severely ill with COVID-19 might need to stay home for up to 20 days after symptoms first appear. The White House has not provided detailed information on the severity of Trump’s illness and has refused to say when he last tested negative for the virus.

The back-and-forth followed a debate on Wednesday between the two running mates, Vice President Mike Pence and Democratic vice presidential nominee Senator Kamala Harris, that was far more orderly than the Trump-Biden encounter.

Biden raised more than $12 million on the day of the debate, a campaign aide said.

Harris was joined by Biden in the battleground state of Arizona on Thursday for an event with Native American leaders and a bus tour to meet with small-business owners and voters in Phoenix and Tempe on the second day of early balloting in the state.

Reporting by Trevor Hunnicutt, Steve Holland and Michael Martina, additional reporting by Joseph Ax; Writing by Simon Lewis, Scott Malone and John Whitesides; editing by Will Dunham/Alistair Bell, Noeleen Walder, Grant McCool and Michael Perry

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