On Donald Trump, Florida Republicans agree: His unscripted, anti-politician style is connecting with people fed up with scripted politicians. “I’m a whiner and I keep whining and whining until I win,” Trump declared Tuesday.
But consensus is lost on everything else — from how long the part-time Florida resident and full-time provocateur will last, to his effect on the GOP’s chances of winning the presidency.
He bewilders and amuses, worries and excites. Despite repeated predictions of imminent decline, Trump keeps charging.
“When he says things that make everybody cringe, it doesn’t matter. For the people who get it, that’s just not important,” said Sid Dinerstein, a former GOP chairman in Palm Beach County. “The other candidates are qualified, but they don’t have the same urgency. They don’t realize that Western civilization as we know it may never be the same again.”
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“He’s helping the brand,” Dinerstein insisted. “The debate last week was the single-biggest nonsports event in the history of Fox.” Actually, in the history of cable TV.
“He’s hurting the brand,” said state Sen. Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, who is worried that Trump will do well enough that the Republican nominee will have to pay homage to him during the convention next July.
Hillary Clinton, “could easily stand up and say, 'There they were at their convention, and they affirmed this guy. They let him speak,’ ” Gaetz predicted. “That picture hurts the brand.”
But even Gaetz, a Jeb Bush supporter, has witnessed Trump’s appeal. His Senate district has the largest percentage of active and retired military personnel of any in the state. He said that while constituents were horrified by Trump’s comments about former POW John McCain, the depth of their frustration with politics-as-usual is much greater.
“There are some folks in northwest Florida who are so angry at whatever they consider to be the establishment that they are excusing Donald Trump simply because his outrageousness gives voice to their extraordinary frustration with the establishment,” Gaetz said.
“His insensitivity, his tin ear, his arrogance haven’t hit boundaries,” Gaetz said. “This is early in the campaign. Take us six months in. What else is he capable of saying and doing?”
State Sen. Charlie Dean of Inverness fretted that Trump, against all convention, could be the nominee, “If he continues to run his mouth and no one challenges him.
“And then I think we’ll get destroyed.”
Over the weekend, Bush condemned Trump’s remarks about Fox News host Megyn Kelly, and some other candidates have joined in. But largely the field is unsure how to react. Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida has said he won’t comment, lest Trump overtake his campaign’s message.
Trump’s antics have not knocked him from the top of polls, though a fresh one Tuesday from first nominating state Iowa showed flashes of cooling. While he was still the leader, 55 percent of Republicans said Trump’s debate performance made them less comfortable about him as a candidate.
Trump, 69, was back on Fox News on Tuesday and said only a “deviant” would think he was implying Kelly’s aggressive questioning was related to menstruation. He refused to rule out a third-party run, which could strip away votes from the Republican nominee.
He also attacked Bush for a recent gaffe about eliminating all federal funding for women’s health programs (Bush meant to say Planned Parenthood), and said Bush and Clinton are beholden to the wealthy donors contributing to their campaigns.
Those people, Trump said, are “expecting big, big things” in return, “and some of those things are counter to what’s good for the country, believe me.”
Trump’s Florida supporters concede his more inflammatory rhetoric about women and immigration is problematic but say the fight he is showing explains his durability.
“Weaker candidates would have backed down and withered away,” said Everett Wilkinson, a tea party organizer in South Florida who says grass-roots activists are drawn to Trump in part because he does not have to rely on millionaire donors and special interests to fuel his campaign.
“He is the No. 1 candidate with tea party conservatives,” Wilkinson said.
But Sharon Calvert, a tea party leader in Tampa, said there isn’t broad support. “We’re looking for somebody serious. I wouldn’t worry so much about him. When you talk about the issues, how deep can Trump go?”
“I don’t have any concern about him winning the nomination,” said former Republican state Rep. J.C. Planas of Miami. “But my issue goes to his followers: What is it you are so mad about? The whole thing is distasteful to me.”
Gravity eventually will catch up with Trump, said former state Sen. Ellyn Bogdanoff of Fort Lauderdale, who supports Rubio.
“People are going to get tired of it. I have a lot of faith in the voters. As the time gets closer and people become more thoughtful, they will focus on the candidate they believe can run this country. This is not about grabbing headlines; this is about running America.”
Times staff writer Steve Bousquet contributed to this report. Contact Alex Leary at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @learyreports.