INSIDE A BULLETPROOF SUV — Donald Trump is still pumped up Friday night as he hops inside the Secret Service vehicle whisking him away from a crowd of at least 10,000 fans at USF's Sun Dome.
"Look at the spirit out there!" he gushes as we swing past waving supporters. "Did you stand there in that room and feel that kind of response?"
A big part of Trump's appeal is that he speaks like a regular guy instead of a cautious politician. During a ride to the airport he invited me to join, the billionaire Republican presidential frontrunner is gracious and warm, every bit the accessible everyman. No press handlers butting in, no candidate shying away from politically dicey issues and little skittishness about winging it on matters to which he has paid scant attention.
It's like talking to your amiable and opinionated uncle in New Jersey about stuff going on in Florida — but in this case, your uncle is poised to become the Republican presidential nominee.
Trump, 69, repeatedly steers the conversation back to the size of his crowds and vast support across red and blue states, asking nearly as many questions as he answers. But during the 16-minute ride to a private plane awaiting him, he disparages both Marco Rubio and Jeb Bush, sounds skeptical about increased offshore drilling and praises Gov. Rick Scott.
Is it fair that Cubans who arrive in America automatically get legal status, a path to citizenship and benefits such as Social Security, when other foreign-born people don't?
"I don't think that's fair. I mean, why would that be a fair thing?" responds Trump, an answer his rivals are likely to remind him of when campaigning in Miami-Dade County, where thousands of residents fled political persecution in Cuba. "I don't think it would be fair. You know, we have a system now for bringing people into the country, and what we should be doing is we should be bringing people who are terrific people who have terrific records of achievement, accomplishment. … You have people that have been in the system for years (waiting to immigrate to America), and it's very unfair when people who just walk across the border, and you have other people that do it legally."
The so-called wet-foot, dry-foot policy that allows Cubans to stay if they set foot on U.S. soil faces growing skepticism now that the Obama administration is normalizing relations with Cuba.
Trump says he supports those efforts, and expanding economic ties between the countries (unlike Bush, Rubio and Ted Cruz), but he doubts the current administration's ability to strike a good-enough deal. Asked for specifics, he notes that Cuban officials are talking about reparations.
"You don't want to make a deal and get sued two days later. You don't want to make a deal, and all of a sudden, you're in court being sued for $30 billion."
I ask about proposals in Congress that would expand offshore oil drilling, including one that would allow drilling 50 miles from Florida's coast rather than the current 125-mile restriction.
"What's the view in Florida? Are people in favor of that?" he asks, questioning whether the current proposal is for the Atlantic Ocean.
For the Gulf of Mexico mostly, I say, explaining that there's more support for expanded drilling in inland Florida, and much more opposition along Florida's coasts.
"They've already got plenty in the Gulf. … It would be a little bit of a shame (to expand drilling closer to Florida), because there's so much fracking, and there's so much oil that we have now that we never thought possible," Trump says. "That's an issue I'd absolutely study and do the right thing."
Trump spent part of his speech at USF criticizing "gutless" Bush. Why is he so tough on Bush day after day but no longer raises questions about Rubio's controversial use of a state GOP credit card, as he used to. Might Rubio be an attractive running mate for Trump?
He asks about the credit cards.
"So he got caught, and after he gets caught, he says, 'Oh, I'll pay you back,' right?"
Rubio had to pay back several thousand dollars to the state party after the Tampa Bay Times and Miami Herald revealed that Rubio had double-billed the state GOP and Florida taxpayers for flights. But much of the controversy involved questions about whether Rubio charged the state party for many thousands of dollars for supposed political expenses that were actually personal expenses, I explain. Party leaders said he was never supposed to use the card for personal use, though Rubio did it routinely and said he later paid for those expenses himself.
"I've been hearing about this for a long time — I know a lot of people who are very unhappy with it. And there are those that say he got caught, and after he got caught, he said, 'Oh I'd love to pay you back.' But that's not the way the system works."
He says Rubio has been "badly hurt" by his much-mocked debate performance in New Hampshire and disagrees when I suggest Rubio could recover in South Carolina.
As for Bush, "I'm ripping into Jeb because he spent $20 million on negative ads on me. He's spending money on me and saying, like a baby, 'Oh look, I said something bad about Donald Trump. That means I have so much courage.'"
Gov. Scott, on the other hand, is an excellent friend, he says. Trump and the governor speak about once a month.
"He's very underrated. I don't think he gets a fair shake. He should get more kudos than he's gotten."
Trump supports Scott opposing Medicaid expansion in Florida, because states that accept that funding only strengthen Obamacare. Does he agree with Scott's decision to reject $2.4 billion in federal money for a high-speed rail system between Tampa and Orlando?
"It was fine," he says. "(The governor) felt you have highways where the car gets there faster than the train."
I remind him how he used to be an enthusiastic supporter of former Gov. Charlie Crist, hosting fundraising events for him in New York and at his Mar-a-Lago Club in Palm Beach (which, Trump notes, was at one point expected to serve as the Southern White House).
I supported Crist when he was a Republican, Trump says.
"It looked like he was a super politician, and he turned out to be a dud."
I wonder what he thinks of St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman joking that he was banning Trump from the city after Trump called for a temporary ban on Muslims entering the country. Never heard about it, Trump says.
"You can say what you want, you can be politically correct, but there's something going on," he said of those controversial Muslim comments. "You saw in the New Hampshire polls: 68 percent agree with me on that subject."
He is still fired up from his Tampa rally.
"You've never seen a political rally like that. I've had the biggest reporters, from the New York Times, say there's no such thing like that that's ever existed. Ever existed!"
The SUV pulls up to a private plane at Tampa Executive Airport.
Write something nice, he exhorts, and then takes off.
Contact Adam C. Smith at [email protected] Follow @adamsmithtimes.