For Mike Pence, the VIP treatment he got Friday night from Miami-Dade County Republicans might not have been immediately evident. Donald Trump’s running mate, after all, is the governor of Indiana, where punctuality is not known to be a problem.
But to come to Miami, where life moves on Miami Time, and run on schedule? This was a Big Deal.
“We’re going to do something a little different this year,” local GOP Chairman Nelson Diaz said when the clock ticked 6:59 p.m. “We’re going to start exactly on time.”
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And so, spiffy-looking Republican donors — including several men sporting suit jackets and red “Make America Great Again” hats — peeled themselves away from the bar and strolled into the ballroom of the DoubleTree by Hilton Miami Airport and Convention Center to give Pence their attention.
Pence knew to play to the crowd. In his first South Florida appearance of the campaign, he veered from his regular stump speech to offer a few words about Miami-Dade Republicans’ dearest foreign-policy issue.
“Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton would lift the embargo completely and normalize relations with Cuba for nothing in return,” he said. “Let me make a promise to you Donald Trump and I will take to the White House: We will reverse Barack Obama’s executive order on Cuba. We will support a continuation of the embargo until we see real political and religious freedoms take hold in that country.”
It was the line that drew him the most applause, followed by a sustained standing ovation. Trump adopted that position only last month. Cuban Americans make up more than 70 percent of Miami-Dade Republicans; a recent poll showed Trump tied with Clinton for the county’s reliable Cuban vote.
Pence was a late addition to the GOP’s annual Lincoln Day fundraising dinner. Party leaders had wanted Trump to give he keynote speech but were forced to settle for U.S. Rep. Trey Gowdy of South Carolina — an up-and-comer in the national party, to be sure, but not a household name that would immediately move donors to write checks.
“I am delighted to be your keynote speaker’s warm-up act tonight,” Pence joked.
That he’d be warmly received had been in question before the dinner. Anti-Trump sentiment festers among some top Miami-Dade Republicans, including two of the county’s three GOP members of Congress, Carlos Curbelo and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen. Twenty-five days removed from Election Day, neither showed up at their party’s biggest local fundraiser. Nor did the third congressman, Mario Diaz-Balart.
Also absent: U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, who has criticized Trump, his former presidential-primary rival, but remains committed to backing him. Rubio sent an apologetic video message instead. He was at a Palm Beach fundraiser with former President George W. Bush. Pence nevertheless gave Rubio a shout-out.
Outside of Pence’s speech and an impassioned invocation by a pro-Trump pastor, the nominee’s name hardly came up. One woman seated in the back tried to start a “Trump!” chant.
A “Lock her up!” crowd this was not. But Republicans at the dinner appeared to like Pence, who avoided any direct mention of the accusations of sexual misconduct that have engulfed Trump and plunged the GOP into crisis.
“Amidst the avalanche of evidence of political favoritism and outright corruption and deceit flowing out of the Clinton years,” he said, “in the midst of the willful ignorance of the national media about all of that, in the midst of daily and unsubstantiated attacks on my running mate, it’s easy to lose sight that this election really is about big things.”
Last weekend, it briefly seemed possible Pence would desert Trump after The Washington Post released a 2005 recording showing Trump bragging about forcing himself on women. But Pence returned to the campaign trail, and quipped Friday that, “other than a whole lot of zeroes, Donald Trump and I have a lot in common.”
He campaigned earlier in the day in Pensacola, after saying on NBC News’ “Today Show” that the campaign might be “hours” away from releasing information to counter the allegations of groping against Trump.
In Miami, Pence recognized Lt. Gov. Carlos Lopez-Cantera, who was in the audience and who has stayed studiously silent about his feelings about the presidential race. After decrying the state of the economy, Pence also praised Gov. Rick Scott, who heads a pro-Trump super PAC, as a job creator.
“When Donald Trump becomes president of the United States, he’s going to do the same kind of things Rick Scott’s done here,” Pence said.
Seven hundred miles away, in Charlotte, North Carolina, Trump was upset over a malfunctioning TelePrompTer.
He proceeded to dismantle it on his rally stage.