When Donald Trump walked into a packed, 10,000-capacity arena Wednesday night, the crowd erupted.
The GOP frontrunner for president has a bulls-eye on him more than ever this week. In Tuesday’s State of the Union address, Trump was the target of veiled criticism from both President Barack Obama and South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, who delivered the Republican response. At Thursday night’s Republican debate in South Carolina, he anticipates taking flak from his rivals while he’s at center stage once more.
But here, he was in his glory.
With “Eye of the Tiger” blaring on the loudspeaker, Trump waved, opened his arms wide and pointed at supporters as he walked to the stage.
“We don’t win anymore, you understand that?” he said, seizing on a signature line. “We’re a country that doesn’t win.”
And then he embarked on a wandering, passionate, off-the-cuff speech that hit on many of his favorite topics: the Iran nuclear deal, attacks on the news media, his standing atop the polls and the “incompetent leaders” in Congress and the Obama administration.
By the time Trump took the stage at 7:30 p.m. CST, the crowd was on its feet and had grown rowdy — and restless. While Florida veterans, gun-rights activists and businesspeople spoke, the crowd started chanting, “We want Trump” and “Where’s Trump?”
Trump took his fair share of jabs at fellow candidates, including former Gov. Jeb Bush and Sen. Marco Rubio. And he hinted that Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas — who was born in Canada to American citizens — might not meet the constitutional requirement that the president be a natural-born citizen.
If Cruz wins the nomination and a court decides he can’t run, Trump wondered, “What do you do? Concede the election to Hillary Clinton or crazy Bernie (Sanders)?”
And he had some choice words for both Haley and Obama.
“Nikki Haley said I’m an angry person,” he said. “I don’t think of myself that way, but, yeah, I am angry… because we’re being led by people who are very stupid.”
Among the many issues where Trump disagrees with the Obama administration, few have spawned as much criticism as his proposal to close U.S. borders to all Muslims. He pulled back on that stance recently, telling the Washington Examiner this week, “I’m not saying there can’t be some give and take.”
But in Florida, a state where Gov. Rick Scott is among those who said they won’t accept Syrian refugees, Trump held firm.
“I’m all for doing some kind of safe zone someplace in Syria,” he told the Pensacola gathering. “But this could be the great Trojan horse.”
Criticism from some Republicans and Democrats alike hasn’t dampened enthusiasm for Trump, with national polls showing him still with a commanding lead among fellow Republicans.
“We have another debate tomorrow,” he said. “They’ll all be attacking me. Whatever, right? Whatever. Whatever!”
Enthusiasm for the real estate mogul-turned politician was palpable in Pensacola, where rally-goers mobbed Trump after his hour-long speech, asking for autographs and taking selfies.
“We sent 5,000 people away,” Trump claimed. “I have to come back and do another one.”
Hours before the rally started, people were in line for the best seats in the Pensacola Bay Center. Their shirts and flags buttons carried slogans like “Hillary for prison,” “Trump 2016: There will be Hell toupee” and “Beware of liberals posing as Americans.”
Jonathan Maney sold a lot of those Trump shirts at his booth, the Passionate Patriot. But the most popular shirts Wednesday had pro-gun messages, the 62-year-old Fort Walton Beach resident said. Even a Secret Service agent bought one.
Maney’s a bigger fan of Ted Cruz than of Trump, but he likes some of what Trump has to say.
“I’ll vote for whoever our nominee is,” he said. “But I don’t mind saying I’m not at all thrilled about Bush, and I’m not a big fan of Marco Rubio as a direct result of his position on the Gang of Eight and immigration. I voted for him for Senate, but I won’t vote for him for president.”
Bush and Rubio aren’t very popular in a Trump crowd, even in Florida, where Republican politicians have enthusiastically endorsed either the former governor or junior U.S. senator from Florida. Bush unveiled 21 new supporters in the Florida House on Wednesday, letting him claim backing from more than half the House GOP caucus.
But to Trump, polls matter more than endorsements.
“Trump is kicking ass in Florida,” he told the crowd. “Can you believe that? Amazing.”
Some of Trump’s support comes from those who say they don’t even identify with the Republican Party anymore.
“Republicans have left me,” said retired manufacturing worker Larry Eubanks, 69, who drove from Star, Miss., for his second Trump rally.
Some attending the rally said they like Trump’s stance on immigration, his experience in business and that he’s put so much of his own money into his campaign.
“You don’t feel like he’s bought by anybody,” said David Madison, 23, who sells Toyotas in Mobile, Ala., “because he owns it all.”
And they like that his campaign message is honest — even when it offends some, Trump “will do like he says,” said Bobbie Hetzel, who lives in Pace and came to the rally with other members of American Legion Post 78.
“I don’t think Trump gives a damn about what people think,” Hetzel said.