Trying to outrun an extraordinary storm of controversy that has rattled the confidence of some Republicans, Donald Trump landed in Florida on Wednesday for a pair of packed rallies that tried to refocus his attacks on Hillary Clinton.
“We’ve got to stop being the stupid country run by very stupid people,” Trump said before 8,000 people in Daytona Beach, who met him with feverish applause. Most scoffed at news reports that his campaign is in turmoil.
The Republican presidential nominee seized on a new report that the U.S. had sent $400 million in cash to Iran as the country released four Americans. “It’s a disgrace,” Trump said, suggesting former Secretary of State Clinton had a role. “Iran is now a power and they’re going have nuclear weapons sooner than you think.”
For more than 50 minutes, Trump jumped from topic to topic with trademark bombast, accusing the news media of lying, warning of “rigged” elections, hurling insults and whipping up the crowd into spontaneous anti-Clinton outbursts of “Lock her up!”
But Trump restrained himself from mentioning the firestorm he set off by challenging the Muslim parents of an Army captain who died serving in Iraq, which set off a cascade of controversial statements in recent days. He also alluded to his insensitive remarks about a disabled reporter, but told the crowd he would not mimic the man’s hand movements.
“I’m not doing it,” he said — precisely the kind of detour his advisors want him to avoid.
Trump had good news to boast about, telling the audience he and the GOP raised $82 million in the last month, not far behind Clinton and Democrats. The cash allows him to begin placing staff and offices in must-win Florida and other battleground states as well as counter Clinton’s enormous advantage in TV spending.
Clinton and her allies have spent $20 million on TV time in Florida alone so far, including a new ad released Wednesday that hits Trump for making his menswear in China and other foreign countries, countering his campaign rhetoric of ending outsourcing. Trump’s allies have invested only $300,000 at this point. Remarkably, though, the race remains incredibly tight.
“It’s a movement,” Trump said. “We’re going to get rid of Obama. We’re going to get rid of crooked Hillary.” He vowed to bring jobs back to Daytona Beach and the rest of the country, but offered no specifics.
For all the enthusiasm, however, Trump’s campaign has sustained serious damage in recent days and there was talk of top Republicans, including Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus, staging an intervention.
Tuesday alone was breathtaking.
Trump refused to back down from his feud with and Khizr and Gazala Khan, the Muslim parents of an Army captain who died in Iraq. “Please remember, I was viciously attacked and all I did was respond to it,” he said on Fox News. He drove a wedge through the GOP by saying he would not yet endorse House Speaker Paul Ryan, who faces a re-election challenge in Wisconsin, or Sen. John McCain, a war hero he has attacked on the campaign trail.
Upon receiving a Purple Heart from a supporter in Virginia on Tuesday, Trump, who got out of serving in Vietnam because of heel spurs, joked he “always wanted” one, adding, “this was much easier.” Trump even seemed, jokingly, to toss a crying baby from his rally.
The collective distractions were enough to alarm mainstream Republicans and knocked Trump off his message at a crucial time when he needs to transition from a contentious primary season to the general election.
“I tweet him every day and say, ‘I love you, I’m behind you, but stick to the issues,’” said Barbara Rowles, 68, of Ormond Beach, who attended the Daytona Beach rally. “I want him to shut up about the silly things. He can’t take everything personally.”
But many others seemed content to let Trump be Trump. “I stand by him no matter what,” said John Gervasoni, 51, of Daytona Beach.
Of the Khan controversy, he said: “It’s everyone being too sensitive again in America. Do you know how many people of different races have died? They’re not up there trying to be the focus. [The Khans] just want the publicity. It’s the Democrats’ way of trying to trick the American people.”
Trump on Wednesday scoffed at reports of discord. “There is great unity in my campaign, perhaps greater than ever before,” he wrote on Twitter. “I want to thank everyone for your tremendous support. Beat Crooked H!”
In an interview Wednesday with CBS12 of West Palm Beach, he said, “I’m not concerned about anything. I was very forthright when I made certain statements. And I’m happy with them. We’ll see what happens.”
While other prominent Republicans were shying away from Trump — in a few cases, declaring they will vote for Clinton — Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi gave a ringing endorsement from the stage, casting Trump as a fighter, a loving family man and someone who would put the country back on track. Predicting a Trump victory in November, she declared, “Independence Day is coming early this year.”
Another Floridian, RNC co-chair Sharon Day, gave a fiery speech that ripped the media for portraying the GOP convention in Cleveland as one that preyed on fears of terrorism and offered no optimism. Instead, she said, it was “filled with positive energy. We were united.” Day recounted Bill Clinton’s sex scandals and urged voters to “close that chapter of perversion.”
“Lock her up! Lock her up!” the crowd shouted.
“No,” Day pleaded. “Defeat her.”
If there was any place Trump could have faced veteran backlash, Jacksonville, home to the county with the state’s largest veteran population would have been it. And a handful of veterans did protest, like 75-year-old Army veteran Ed Wey, who stood at the doors of the Jacksonville Veterans Memorial Arena holding a sign calling Trump unfit to lead the military.
“As a military veteran who served in Vietnam, I found what he said very offensive,” Wey said.
But he was in the minority, as a crowd filled with veterans cheered Trump for his frank language inside the arena.
“He didn’t go over the line at all,” said Keith Hutchison, a U.S. Navy veteran from Jacksonville. “I like that he’s not afraid to speak his mind.”
Bradley Williams, a U.S. Army veteran who served in Iraq, said if Trump is president, it would make him want to be on active duty again.
“He’ll bring pride back to the military,” Williams said. “We want a commander and chief we can be proud of.”
Leary reported from Daytona Beach and Wallace from Jacksonville.