President Barack Obama dashed from a Navy hangar in Jacksonville to a swanky Miami Beach hotel Monday to buff his image in a recession-weary state and bag $1.5 million to defend the Democratic majority in Congress.
Obama's second trip to Florida since the state helped seal his 2008 election had the feel of an ambitious campaign swing.
And this time, unlike in February, Republican Gov. Charlie Crist — who has his own U.S. Senate race to worry about — was not by his side.
Obama began his visit to Florida at a rally with 3,500 service personnel at the sprawling Naval Air Station in Jacksonville. The helicopter crashes that killed 14 Americans in Afghanistan on Monday served as a tragic backdrop.
Obama defended himself against GOP accusations that he's dithered on whether to dispatch more troops.
"And while I will never hesitate to use force to protect the American people or our vital interests, I also promise you this — and this is very important as we consider our next steps in Afghanistan," Obama said. "I will never rush the decision of sending you into harm's way. I won't risk your lives unless it is absolutely necessary. And if it is necessary, we will back you up."
Before his speech, the president held a private meeting with families who have lost sons and daughters in war. On stage, he paid tribute to Michael Scott Speicher, a naval aviator from Jacksonville whose remains were brought home last summer, 18 years after his plane crashed in Iraq.
The president was surrounded by hundreds of enlisted men and women in crisply starched uniforms, as large aircraft — symbols of America's military prowess — were parked strategically in camera range.
The crowd cheered when Obama said he'll soon sign a defense bill that increases military spending, and he cited military-related stimulus projects such as a child development center at nearby Mayport Naval Air Station.
At the Miami Beach fundraiser, tickets cost $500, though some donors paid as much as $100,000 to dine with the president.
Obama was introduced at the fundraiser by Sen. Bill Nelson and joined by other Democratic members of Congress — including the party's front-runner for Florida's other Senate seat, U.S. Rep. Kendrick Meek of Miami.
Meek is not well known outside of South Florida and tried to raise his profile by talking up Obama's visit at a Jacksonville news conference and greeting him when he disembarked from Air Force One in Miami.
Also waiting for Obama on the tarmac in Miami: Chief Financial Officer Alex Sink, the leading Democratic candidate to replace Crist as governor; state Sen. Dan Gelber of Miami Beach, a candidate for attorney general; and Miami Mayor Manny Diaz.
About 200 protesters gathered across the street from the hotel with a wide range of gripes, from health care to immigration to the president's golf game, which until Sunday had never included a woman. The crowd included Haitians calling for asylum, antiabortion activists, gun rights advocates and opponents of toppled Honduran President Manuel Zelaya.
Miami Herald staff writers Lesley Clark and Trenton Daniel and Times researcher Carolyn Edds contributed to this report.