HIBBING, MINN. – Vice President Mike Pence returned to northern Minnesota on Monday, drawing stark contrasts with Democrat Joe Biden as the race for the White House enters a crucial final stretch.

"We have a choice to make. It's a choice between a Trump recovery and a Biden depression," Pence told the crowd of about 650 people.

Pence's visit and his relentless campaign schedule comes as five of his aides, including his chief of staff and his senior political adviser, tested positive for COVID-19 over the weekend.

The crowd far exceeded state rules limiting events to no more than 250 people. Before the event, attendees had their temperature checked and were asked to wear masks. More than half could be seen wearing masks during the rally, but many stood closer than recommended by state social distancing guidelines aimed at reducing the spread of the deadly virus.

Pence spent about an hour in the cold at the Range Regional Airport, defending Trump's first term and attacking Joe Biden's record, eight days before the election. He drew gloved applause while ticking through a range of conservative issues, including trade, an anti-abortion stance and a commitment to law enforcement.

"We are not going to defund the police," the vice president said. "Not now, not ever."

He promised support for controversial new copper-nickel mines on the Iron Range, and continued the false narrative the Trump campaign has touched on in previous Minnesota visits: that the Obama administration closed the Range and Trump reopened it.

The Obama administration started putting tariffs on Chinese steel in 2016, after several mines were temporarily shuttered. Trump continued with further tariffs even after most mines reopened before the end of Obama's presidency.

While mining job growth continued through Trump's term, the number of mining jobs has shrunk since the pandemic began. Keetac, U.S. Steel's iron ore mine in Keewatin, remains closed indefinitely, with about 300 miners out of work.

Pence spent most of his speech on the economy and jobs and promises of a new age of prosperity on the Iron Range; he spent relatively little time addressing the pandemic as new cases surge in Minnesota and around the country. Despite the outbreak among his staff, Pence has tested negative and vowed to continue his schedule.

DFL Gov. Tim Walz said Monday that he was disappointed to hear about the crowd size and lax mask wearing at the event after receiving assurances from the Trump campaign that state and local rules would be followed. The Trump campaign has come under fire in recent days for ignoring an agreement it signed with Duluth area officials to limit attendance to 250 people at Trump's Sept. 30 rally. More than 2,500 people attended the rally, held two days before Trump was diagnosed with COVID-19, airport officials estimated.

"We want to make sure people participate in things, especially democracy, but at this point in time, listening to a speech in a crowded area does not constitute [being] worth the risk," Walz said.

Jennifer Carnahan, Minnesota GOP chairwoman, said the big crowds showed the depth of supporters' enthusiasm, not a disregard for the rules.

"People are just so energized and excited to see a sitting president and vice president when they come to our state, which they have several times," Carnahan said.

A popular destination

It was the administration's fourth visit to northern Minnesota after President Donald Trump visited Bemidji and Duluth and Pence stopped in Duluth in recent months. Trump has made it a mission to win the state, which has not voted for a Republican for president since 1972.

Gary Martinson of Hibbing said Trump's support for mining — especially the proposed PolyMet copper-nickel mine — is part of a long list of reasons he supports the president.

"He's done so much for people," he said, adding he thinks Trump can win the state.

And after four more years of Trump, Martinson said he's looking forward to eight years of Pence as president.

With windchills in the teens and many attendees waiting in their cars before the doors opened, Andy Grigg of Hibbing was at the front of the line Monday morning in support of the president.

"He's doing great for us American people. He's not a politician," he said. "Democrats are just so insanely radical right now, it's crazy."

Grigg said that based on the support he's seeing on the Range and elsewhere, he thinks Trump can finish what he started in 2016 and win Minnesota.

Republicans have broken off some of the labor support that made the region a bastion of DFL support for decades. The president won northeastern Minnesota's Eighth Congressional District by a 15% margin in 2016, and a union-backed Republican won a seat in Congress here in 2018.

"I'll be damned if I let the Iron Range take a back seat to China," said Rep. Pete Stauber, who is seeking to be the first Republican re-elected from the Eighth Congressional District since World War II and made an appeal to his conservative base ahead of Pence's arrival: "We stand for the flag and kneel for the cross."

The state DFL Party held a news conference at the Duluth Labor Temple on Sunday blasting Pence's visit and the administration's handling of the pandemic.

"The reality is, anyone that is responsible for 220,000 deaths should not remain as president of the United States," said DFL Chairman Ken Martin. "President Donald Trump says that we're learning to live with this virus. But as Joe Biden says, 'No, we're learning to die with it.' "

Staff writer Torey Van Oot contributed this report.

Brooks Johnson • 218-491-6496