President Donald Trump was a big part of the Hillsborough County Republican Party's major annual fundraising dinner Saturday – everywhere except in the keynote speech by Gov. Rick Scott, who's running for the U.S. Senate.
As he has been doing on the campaign trail, Scott, although he's known as a political ally of Trump, didn't mention him in a brief version of his stump speech delivered to about 400 excited Republicans at the dinner.
Their mood of the crowd seemed to be buoyed by what they consider good news for Trump and his party recently: the nation's economic growth and low unemployment; the negotiations with North Korea; and the attacks by GOP loyalists in Congress on the FBI and Justice Department officials investigating Trump.
Most of the rest of the speakers, including both the leading Republicans running to replace Scott in Tallahassee, Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam and U.S. Rep. Ron DeSantis, R-Jacksonville, extolled Trump, and the crowd loved hearing his name.
At the beginning of the evening, those attendees got a surprise – Trump himself speaking from the podium through Attorney General Pam Bondi's cell phone, which she held to the mic.
Trump's message: "I'll be there fairly soon. We'll hold a special event there in the near future … We'll be in Tampa very soon."
He didn't say anything more about the purpose or timing of the event, but it may have had special meaning for Putnam and DeSantis.
Trump has tweet-endorsed DeSantis and DeSantis has said he expects Trump to campaign for him in Florida.
Asked his reaction, Putnam said, "I don't have any idea. I would assume that any event in Tampa involves supporting our troops at Centcom and Socom," the Central Command and Special Operations Command headquartered at MacDill Air Force Base.
A Scott spokesman said the governor doesn't know anything about Trump's plans; DeSantis left immediately after speaking to the crowd and couldn't be reached Saturday night.
Despite Trump's apparent preference for DeSantis, Putnam urged the crowd to get excited about the 2020 election as well as November's.
Major Democratic donors "want to defeat President Trump in 2020 and they think Florida is the way to do that," he said. "That can't happen. … Our excitement, our passion, is the reason he won" in 2016.
DeSantis, meanwhile, boasted of his relationship with Trump.
"I've been one of the few who Pres. Trump has referred to as an absolute warrior," he said. "I've been fighting against all the unfair attacks."
Scott, meanwhile, concentrated on two seemingly impossible goals he has set for himself if elected to the Senate – imposing term limits on Congress members and requiring a super-majority in Congress to raise any tax or fee.
Both would require constitutional amendments.
A state constitutional amendment on the November ballot in Florida would require a two-thirds majority of the Legislature to raise a fee or tax, and Scott suggested the same should happen at the federal level.
"My focus is going to be how to make Washington work the same way we make Florida work," Scott said.
"The first thing people will say is you can't get that done," but, "They work for us," he said.
Attendees from Congress members down to precinct representatives gave varying opinions on the mood and excitement level of the party, but most said it was positive.
"I think it's trending up," said Rep. Gus Bilirakis, R-Palm Harbor. "The president has hit some home runs," including the Korea negotiations. "That wasn't the case a few weeks ago. We were down."
"It's surprisingly good," said Tampa consumer lawyer and former clerk of court candidate Eric Seidel. "You might expect otherwise."
Some attendees mentioned factions within the party and the difficulty they said some Republicans are having trying to understand Trump's agenda.
But political consultant Mark Proctor said criticism and negative news stories about Trump don't affect the kind of people in the crowd gathered for the dinner – "They're tuning out all the negative. They don't watch CNN."