Thousands of Donald Trump fans packed inside and outside a Sarasota arena Saturday to hear the Republican frontrunner rip Marco Rubio, Jeb Bush, super PAC political committees, “phonies” in the press corps (especially the New York Times), Obamacare, “weak” generals leading America’s military, political correctness, Hillary Clinton and assorted people who have doubted or criticized him.
The billionaire reality TV star who has upended the Republican primary drew booming cheers and chants of “Trump! Trump! Trump!” as he delivered a disjointed, borderline stream-of-consciousness speech heavy on knocking critics and vague on promises about reviving the American dream and making it “bigger and stronger and bolder” than ever before.
At least 4,000 people filled Robarts Arena, and thousands more listened to speakers booming his remarks outside. After the Trump helicopter landed, he first spoke to the crowd outside, calling for a half-dozen “beautiful children” to hop aboard for a ride.
After his speech in the arena, Trump addressed the crowd outside again before hopping back into the Trump helicopter as it departed, commander-in-chief-like, while speakers blared the majestic soundtrack to the film Air Force One.
Florida holds its primary March 15, and with recent polls showing Trump comfortably leading among Florida Republican voters, he dismissed the competition from former Florida frontunners Bush and Rubio.
“I think it’s going to be an easy campaign in Florida because I’m leading by a lot already, and Bush is down in the tubes,” Trump said. “Rubio is a little bit higher than Bush, but I’ll tell you what: If I had a young guy who has a lot of ambition — so much ambition he can’t sit straight for a couple of years — and he doesn’t even have the courtesy to go and sit in Washington and represent the people of Florida, there’s no way he’s going to beat me in an election in Florida. There’s no way.”
Trump has held campaign rallies in Jacksonville and South Florida, but Saturday marked his first presidential rally in the greater Tampa Bay area. Sarasota GOP Chairman Joe Gruters is Trump’s Florida campaign chairman.
He drew a far larger crowd than most candidates can muster, and it included considerably more younger people than typical Sarasota rallies, but few elected officials were present. Typically, elected politicians would be clamoring to appear near or alongside a presidential frontrunner.
Much of Trump’s speech focused on his strong position in assorted public opinion polls and to pushing back on criticism that last week he mockingly imitated disabled New York Times reporter Serge F. Kovaleski, using jerking arm motions while talking about him at a rally.
“I don’t mock people that have problems, believe me,” Trump said Saturday.
He called himself a strong supporter of disabled Americans, especially veterans, and said he has spent millions of dollars making his properties accessible to the disabled.
Kovaleski became a campaign issue after Trump recently made the widely debunked claim that he saw thousands of Muslims in New Jersey celebrating the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on America. PolitiFact rated it Pants on Fire.
His campaign pointed to an article Kovaleski wrote at the time for the Washington Post, which said authorities questioned “a number of people who were allegedly seen celebrating the attacks.”
Trump, 69, did not back off of his assertion.
“By the way,” he said Saturday, “everybody admits that worldwide, Muslims were absolutely going wild” over 9/11.
Trump showed a more diplomatic side when several protesters sought to disrupt his speech.
“Don’t hurt the person. Please nicely escort the person out,” Trump said, before instructing several young hecklers to move faster as security officials escorted them out of the arena.
His abrasive, bombastic style worries plenty of Republican political leaders who think it would hurt him as a general election nominee, but there was no sign of worry from his many fans in Sarasota. A few people said they came out of curiosity and interest in the spectacle, but most sounded like true believers.
“He’s honest, he tells it the way it is. He’s going to close the border, which is very, very important. He’s using his own money. He’s got so many things going for him,” gushed Nancy Blemaster, a retiree from Venice, who gave a thumbs-down sign when asked about Bush and Rubio.
“I just don’t like them. They’re part of the Republican establishment, and the establishment is as crooked as the Democrats,” she said.
Trump spoke for an hour to the crowd inside the arena and repeatedly attacked Rubio for being weak on immigration and for having supported a pathway to citizenship for illegal immigrants now living in the country. He ripped Bush for supporting the Common Core education accountability program adopted by most states.
The mention of Bush, at one time an enormously popular Republican governor in Florida, drew loud boos from the crowd.
“Anybody in favor of Common Core should be defeated at the polls because they have no sense,” Trump said.
The average of recent Florida polls compiled by RealClearPolitics.com shows Trump comfortably ahead among Republican voters with 32 percent support, followed by Ben Carson with 18 percent, Rubio with 17 percent, Ted Cruz with 11 percent and Bush with 9 percent.
“He’s not a bought-and-paid for politician. He knows all the ins and outs of negotiating,” said Clearwater resident Bob Priest, standing in line near a live elephant painted with Trump’s “Make America Great Again” slogan. “He’s got some guts and he tells it like it is.”
Sarasota retiree Joanne DeFrusco likes the strength Trump projects.
“That’s the one thing we need today — a strong candidate, somebody that can stand up to all the adversities that we’re presented with,” she said. “And so many of the candidates don’t have the stuff to do the job that needs to be done.”
Trump ridiculed Democratic frontrunner Clinton for not campaigning more often, saying she lacks the strength and stamina to be president.
He ridiculed Republicans in Washington for forgetting their constituents back home and he criticized “Barack Hussein Obama” for failing to keep America’s enemies afraid of America.
“Terrorism only happens when you have weak leaders,” said Trump, who also complained that America spent trillions of dollars in Iraq, lost thousands of lives and “we got nothing. ... If I get in, I’m taking the oil.”
Trump’s unscripted, unstructured speech lasted at least two or three times as long as most conventional stump speeches. By the time 60 minutes approached, and Trump showed no signs of winding down, people began filtering out.
He ridiculed people who doubt his plan to have Mexico pay to build an enormous wall across America’s southern border: “They’re not businesspeople. They have no idea.”
He said, without specifics, that he would put in place a far simpler tax code: “We’re going to put H&R Block the hell out of business.”
And for more than 15 minutes he mocked the New York Times — “a failing newspaper” — for having lost money in buying and selling the Boston Globe, for failing to make more money on its former office building, and for accusing him of making fun of their reporter’s disability: “I think the New York Times frankly should give me an apology. And I’d love to have the apology before they go out of business.”