Donald Trump may have Carolina on his mind, but on Friday night the Republican frontrunner rallied the troops in Tampa with an eye toward a long race to the nomination.
Coming off his first win Tuesday in New Hampshire, Trump delivered an hourlong stump speech of his greatest hits from the campaign trail to a standing-room only crowd at the 10,000-capacity University of South Florida Sun Dome. Together, the assembly chanted to Trump's campaign theme: "Build the wall!" They mocked Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton's email scandal, cheered for the troops and Trump's poll numbers, and chided the news media and a handful of protesters.
The raucous crowd, many who waited hours to get in, loudly egged him on.
"Something's happening," Trump said moments after walking in to Van Halen's Right Now. "This is a movement. This is not just a normal situation."
Trump saved his sharpest digs for Republican contender Jeb Bush, mocking the former Florida governor on his own turf as "asleep at the wheel," "a gutless guy" and "a total stiff."
No shots, however, were fired at Florida's other homegrown candidate, Sen. Marco Rubio, who polls say is a tougher opponent for Trump here and in other states. Trump only briefly mentioned Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas — "Find out where he gets his money," Trump said. Cruz is second in the polls in both South Carolina, heading into its Feb. 20 primary, and in Florida, which has its primary on March 15.
Earlier in the day, Trump threatened on Twitter to sue Cruz over his Canadian birthplace if the conservative didn't stop "cheating and doing negative ads."
Peeking ahead to the general election, Trump also lobbed insults at the two remaining Democratic candidates.
"I'd love to run against her," Trump said of Clinton.
"I'd also love to run against the communist," he added in reference to Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, who describes himself as a Democratic socialist. "A communist against an entrepreneur."
Thousands waited outside the Sun Dome for hours before the rally, energized and breaking out in chants of "Trump! Trump!" while occasionally sparring with protesters.
People started gathering outside as early as 7 a.m., and, according to USF police Chief Christopher Daniel, about 2,000 were unable to get in. Some donned Trump pins and T-shirts as well as the now-famous "Make America Great Again" red cap.
Charlie Kercher, 31, spent his day playing Donald Trump. He took the day off from his job in the Lakeland Parks and Recreation Department. Wearing a $7 wig he got for Halloween and a black suit, he worked the crowd as "Charlie Trump."
He stopped to pose for photos and dished out his best Trump impression. The waiting crowd adored him, as he entertained to help pass the time.
"I'm a diehard Trump fan," he said. "Some people want to meet LeBron James, I want to meet Donald Trump."
During his speech, Trump provided few details on his proposals but delivered on one campaign promise. After recently repeating a vulgar term directed at Cruz, Trump vowed to keep it PG-13 in Tampa.
Instead, he showered the Florida crowd with praise and reminded residents of his many business ventures here.
"I've spent a lot of money in Florida. Nobody else has … I love this state," Trump said. "I've created a tremendous number of jobs here."
He also promised to protect and strengthen entitlements like Social Security and Medicare, a key issue for many of Florida's older, reliable voters. "We're going to save Medicare because it actually works."
Trump has squarely led Florida for months and returned to the Sunshine State to re-engage Republican voters here, many of whom have supported the political careers of Bush and Rubio.
The Real Clear Politics polling average has Trump at 40 percent in Florida. Cruz is second at 19 percent while Rubio comes in third at 14 percent.
But a lot can change between now and Florida's primary. There are 24 primaries and caucuses before Floridians head to the polls.
The timing of Trump's fourth trip to Florida as a candidate has its advantages. After coming in second in Iowa and getting sidetracked by Cruz's campaign tactics there, Trump rolls into Florida riding his New Hampshire wave. And his arrival coincided with the arrival of hundreds of thousands of absentee ballots in the hands of Florida voters, which counties began distributing this week.
"You have to go out and vote," Trump told the crowd. "Or we're wasting our time, the movement ends and that's the end of it."
From Florida, Trump heads back to South Carolina to debate a narrowing field tonight. Polls show the wealthy New York businessman and bombastic television personality leading the field by double digits in the state.
That Trump chose to spend time in the back yard of Bush and Rubio was not lost on attendees. Outside the rally, "Shush the Bush" signs were distributed (though not allowed in).
Attendee Nancy Robinson said she was glad to see Trump here to ensure the homegrown candidates don't start eating into his support.
"Florida is noted for screwing up elections," her husband, Randy, said. The two retirees are Georgia transplants now living in Sun City Center.
Others were more conflicted. South Brandon resident Robin Pack, 53, who was on hurricane duty while Bush was the executive, said he still believes Bush was a "great governor." But he's being swayed to the Donald by his 16-year-old son, Ari Roberts, who hoped he will be voting for a second Trump term when he's eligible to vote in 2020.
"Bush seems more like he wouldn't take a stand," Pack said. "(Trump) doesn't have to worry about lobbyists pressuring him. He's says what people think and what other politicians won't."
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