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Rubio praises Pence, avoids mentioning Trump, at Tampa GOP fundraiser (w/ video)

TAMPA — Florida Sen. Marco Rubio followed vice presidential nominee Mike Pence to the podium in a Tampa hotel ballroom full of enthusiastic Republicans on Saturday, praised Pence and other GOP leaders and then gave his usual rousing stump pitch.

But he did it all, speaking 34 minutes, without once mentioning the name of Pence's running mate, the presidential nominee the Republicans were there to support, Donald Trump.

Rubio this week maintained his tepid support for Trump for president after eight days of scurrilous revelations and accusations of Trump's abusive attitudes toward women.

But if anything, Rubio's speech Saturday night suggests he hopes to put even more distance between himself and Trump.

Rubio emphasized the key role the Senate will play in the next four years, but spoke almost dismissively of the presidential contest.

"I want to talk about the importance of the Senate race," he said. "We all know the importance of the presidential race."

He cited the coming U.S. Supreme Court vacancies, often referenced by reluctant Republicans as a reason to stick by Trump despite the past week's revelations.

"The next president and the next U.S. Senate will probably nominate and confirm up to three Supreme Court justices," who will serve up to 25 years – "the equivalent of three two-term presidencies," he said.

But for much of the crowd at the fundraising dinner – some 650 people who paid $250 or more each to attend -- the last eight days might almost not have happened.

The revelations of Trump's boasting about groping women in a 2005 video, and the stream of women who then accused him of having done so, were regrettable to some and even indefensible to others – but to many, no more than a fiction somehow manufactured by Hillary Clinton campaign in collusion with "the liberal media."

Almost none saw that as a reason to change their vote.

"If you believe the media, you would believe the Republican National Committee is no longer supporting Donald J. Trump," Sharon Day, one of Florida's delegates to the RNC, told the crowd. "I'm here to tell you that is total nonsense."

State Rep. Blaise Ingoglia, R-Spring Hill, chairman of the state party, acknowledged in an interview that Trump's comments on the leaked Access Hollywood video, in which he bragged about groping women, were "offensive . . . degrading to women, and I'm not going to defend it because it's indefensible."

But, he added, "What's equally offensive is the prospect of a Hillary Clinton presidency."

He confirmed he's supporting and voting for Trump.

Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam called Trump's comments "vile and obscene" but said Trump would be better for the country than Clinton.

One exception among the party leaders was Lt. Gov. Carlos Lopez-Cantera. He would not say whether he supports or plans to vote for Trump.

"I support Marco Rubio," said Lopez-Cantera, who did state he will not vote for Clinton.

But in interviews one after another, most of the attendees minimized the accusations or discredited the women who have accused Trump.

"Nonsense," said attorney and party activist Christopher Crowley. "Cheap political accusations from Hillary."

GOP women were more likely to express concern than men.

"I was very upset. It was a totally incorrect thing, horrible thing to say about women, as bad as it can get," said veteran party official and Indian River County Tax Collector Carole Jean Jordan. "That said, the other side of the race has done terrible things to our country. She abandoned our ambassador in Benghazi and people died."

April Bergloff, a Panama City party activist, said, "I don't believe what he said was right, but it's about the Supreme Court seats. I'm Christian and pro-life. He'll put people in those seats I would favor.

"Obviously, the Democrats tried to create a smokescreen for what was coming at them from WikiLeaks," said Hillsborough County GOP Chairwoman Deborah Tamargo. But she said the accusations have all been "debunked."

When such incidents occur, "A respectable woman can handle a situation. You learn from an early age, you take care of it."

The crowd in Tampa was more pro-Trump than the similar Miami event where Pence spoke Friday, and his speech was full-throated advocacy for Trump.

"The media out there is doing half of Hillary Clinton's work for her every day. But the amazing thing is Donald Trump's winning hearts and minds every day, and he's going to continue to fight all the way to the White House," he said.

On foreign policy, he said, "Donald Trump will lead with American strength on the world stage."

One thing Pence didn't mention that was a major part of his Miami speech: the promise to reverse the Obama administration's executive orders easing the trade embargo on Cuba.

While that's a popular position with anti-Castro Cuban exiles in Miami, the opening is expected to be a major commercial benefit in Tampa, particularly through Port Tampa Bay.

Rubio's Democratic opponent, U.S. Rep. Patrick Murphy, put out a statement just before the dinner challenging Rubio to address the accusations against Trump.

"Rather than withdraw his endorsement, or provide any response at all, Marco Rubio is campaigning with Trump's running mate," said Murphy campaign spokeswoman Galia Slayen.

Murphy said via email after the speech that Rubio "will do anything to serve his political ambitions and lacks the courage to unendorse Donald Trump after news reports that he has repeatedly committed sexual abuse.''

After the news about Trump's 11-year-old video comments broke late last week, Rubio sent out a tweet criticizing them, but didn't answer reporter questions until midweek about whether he would continue to support Trump, saying he will.

This week, Trump has criss-crossed Florida holding four rallies, with Rubio attending none of them.

The Miami Herald reported that, according to unnamed sources in his campaign, Rubio doesn't plan to attend any further presidential campaign events. The event Saturday in Tampa was a state party fundraising dinner; Rubio didn't take any press questions there.

Trump's state chairman, Joe Gruters of Sarasota, attending the dinner, said the estrangement doesn't matter.

"Being on the ticket together, they're helping each other, regardless of whether they kiss on stage or not," he said.

Times Political Editor Adam C. Smith contributed to this report. Contact William March at wemarch@gmail.com.

Vice presidential candidate Mike Pence gives his keynote speech at a Florida Republican Party event in Tampa on Saturday, Oct. 15, 2016.

LOREN ELLIOTT | Times

Vice presidential candidate Mike Pence gives his keynote speech at a Florida Republican Party event in Tampa on Saturday, Oct. 15, 2016.

Rubio praises Pence, avoids mentioning Trump, at Tampa GOP fundraiser (w/ video) 10/15/16 [Last modified: Sunday, October 16, 2016 1:13am]
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