WASHINGTON — Sure, the crowd at the fairgrounds in Tampa tomorrow will want to hear President Donald Trump talk up economy, his Supreme Court nominee and Ron DeSantis, the Trump-endorsed candidate for governor.
That's the official program.
But the excitement lies in the unscripted — the rollicking, boasting and insult-bombing Trump.
"You just never know what's going to come out of his mouth," said Ann Ohr of Safety Harbor, who surprised her husband for his 73rd birthday with tickets and a Make America Great Again hat. They have never before attended a political rally but are enthralled by Trump.
"I sometimes don't care for the way he puts things," Ohr conceded, "but I respect what he's done for the country. He's done everything he said he would do. He's blasted some fresh air into this country."
There is nothing like a Trump rally and nothing like Trump, who has been in perpetual campaign mode since descending the Trump Tower escalator in June 2015. Unmoored from Washington, where Congress grouses over tariffs and Mueller bears down, the stage for Trump is part therapy session, part heavy metal concert set to the classic tracks of Lock Her Up! and Build The Wall! Facts are optional and the Russia probe is nothing more than a "witch hunt" cooked up by loser Democrats.
"If he's getting beaten up in the media, he goes to one rally and says to himself, 'People love me, they love what I'm doing. They are showing up four hours early to see me,'" said state Rep. Joe Gruters of Sarasota, who co-chaired Trump's Florida campaign. "And by taking his message directly to the people he can bypass the media which slants everything. You've got to remember, this is how he won the presidency."
His rise was in fact aided by the news media, which gave his rallies virtually uninterrupted attention, feasting on the spectacle. Trump the performer seized the opportunity and the public's growing disdain for conventional politicians and slickly packaged campaigns.
Trump, 72, filed for re-election on the day he took office and has since held more than 30 rallies, including three previous in Florida. (Tuesday marks his 36th rally in the state, which he won by 1.2 percentage points.) Trump has raised about $90 million, a remarkably early and aggressive pace and will rake in more at a Republican National Committee event in Tampa.
Before 2020, though, Trump must survive 2018.
If Republicans lose control of the House or Senate, his agenda will come to a halt. Trump's polarizing agenda and involvement in the midterms has led to hushed concerns among Republicans that he could hurt general election prospects of candidates for Congress and key state offices. The latest example came in Georgia, where Trump issued a last-minute endorsement of gubernatorial candidate Brian Kemp, who mimicked Trump's explosive rhetoric, over an establishment favorite.
Trump's embrace of DeSantis, a founding member of the far-right Freedom Caucus, has led to similar worry. Still, DeSantis' primary rival, Adam Putnam, has strained to align himself with Trump, a sign of the president's dominance over the GOP base.
"All of this is bad for the Republican Party," said former Republican Congressman David Jolly of Pinellas County. "It's not just me but others who refuse to go on record that hope there is a swift and hard correction come November. We recognize that a wipeout of congressional candidates and gubernatorial candidates like DeSantis might be an inflection point to say this has gone too far and we can no longer be a party with a governing majority that represents the broader diversity of this country." (DeSantis' response: People said Trump wouldn't win, either.)
For all Jolly's criticism — he may attend the rally for MSNBC, joking he'll need to wear a disguise — he says Trump's campaign events are a strategic success, energizing himself and core supporters.
"This is part of politics that he just eats up," said Julian E. Zelizer, a political historian at Princeton University. "Television satisfies him to some degree but I think he loves the crowd and that moves him to double down on the things many people don't like about what he's doing. He knows himself enough to know he needs to do these. It's his live version of a Twitter feed."
Just weeks after the election, Trump launched a series of rallies under the banner of a "thank you" tour of key states. While pitched as a way to unite a divided country, Trump reveled in his victory. "We had a lot of fun fighting Hillary Clinton, did we?" he said in Cincinnati on Dec. 1, 2016, as the crowd pumped fists and shouted, "lock her up!"
A month into the job, Trump returned to the trail, visiting Florida and declared before 9,000 people that despite what was being reported by the "fake news" media, his administration was running "so smoothly."
In the months since then, he used rallies to lacerate critics and decry the growing focus on Russian interference in the election.
"There's no collusion. No collusion," he declared in Montana earlier this month. "It's all a ruse. This was an excuse for the Democrats who lost an election, who actually got their ass kicked. "
Immigration is a steady focus.
"They're not sending their finest," Trump said during a June rally in Minnesota that came amid the child separation controversy. "And we're sending them the hell back." Democrats, he charged, "put illegal immigrants before American citizens. What the hell is going on?"
Often, Trump blurs the line between campaign events and White House events. Last Tuesday before the annual convention of the Veterans of Foreign Wars on Tuesday in Kansas City, the president relived his election win and called onto stage the Republican seeking to defeat Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill. He attacked the news media and declared, "What you're seeing and what you're reading is not what's happening."
The attacks on the media have sparked hostility toward reporters at rallies, but Trump's claims have not escaped scrutiny. For the Montana rally, the Washington Post determined that 76 percent of Trump's claims were false, misleading or lacking evidence.
Trump's supporters see things differently, embracing his say-anything style as unvarnished and refreshing. If there's bluster, they say, that's just Trump being Trump.
"There's no doubt he's got an ego but what's wrong with that? Don't we all to a certain degree?" said Jamie Curtis, 59, of Tampa, who plans to attend Tuesday's rally. "What attracts me to Donald Trump is he's just like me; he just happens to be a lot wealthier.
"He says some things that, quite frankly, I say, 'Wow, that's weird.' Then I think how many times have I wished I had said something differently. People tell me I wish he would quit tweeting but personally I love it. I know it's coming from him. He's just real."
Curtis, who is in the lawn care business and is brother of a local tea party leader, credits Trump with putting "America first" on trade and foreign policy. As a Christian, he feels Trump was God-sent for the moment. He wants to be able to tell his grandchildren that he saw the president in person.
"I want to be part of history and feel a closeness. His presidency will be remembered for generations and generations to come."