TAMPA — It was supposed to be a campaign rally to rev up military veterans for Ron DeSantis.
But with Hurricane Michael bearing down on Florida's panhandle, the Republican candidate for governor ostensibly turned the event at an Embassy Suites slated for Tuesday afternoon into a collection effort for veterans affected by the storm.
DeSantis told about four dozen supporters standing in the steamy parking lot of the hotel next door to the University of South Florida that holding a rally would not be "as appropriate."
But that doesn't mean he put politics on hold: DeSantis added that sentiment at the end of a stump speech that included some not-so-veiled shots at rival Andrew Gillum.
The events reflected a storm-related reality for DeSantis: While Gillum preps for a hurricane expected to wallop Tallahassee – and getting plenty of media coverage in the process — DeSantis has no official duties. He resigned from his northeast Florida Congressional seat last month to focus on the campaign.
Tuesday's Tampa event, and two more like them scheduled for tomorrow in Orlando and Jacksonville, were a way to try keep the momentum going.
They're being billed as "Emergency Supply Drop Off at Ron DeSantis Regional Events."
Conspicuously absent, however: television news cameras. A Tampa Bay Times reporter and photographer were apparently the only news media present.
By the time the event started at 1:30, organizers had parked a U-Haul truck in the lot and hung American and Florida flags on the side. Several cars pulled up to drop off water, canned goods and other supplies that will be shipped to the Panhandle after Michael passes.
About 2 p.m., a silver Ford F-150 pickup pulled up, cases of water piled high in its bed. At the same time, DeSantis and his wife Casey emerged from a nearby SUV, and he got to work helping unload the water and loading it into the U-Haul.
When the unloading was done about five minutes later, DeSantis mingled with supporters for a while, exchanging Semper Fis, thanking them for their service and posing for photos. Then he climbed into the bed of the truck with Republican state Sen. Tom Lee and Gold Star father Kris Hager.
"Our men and women and our veterans served not because of somebody they hate but because of who they love, and I see on a regular basis in Ron that he served out of love," Hager said. "That's what this country and what Florida needs."
Lee, of Brandon, called this election the most important he's experienced in Florida.
"If we we're going to continue the progress that we made under the last three governors of the state of Florida and Republican leadership, we're going to need to elect Ron DeSantis as our next governor," he said.
DeSantis, who served as an attorney and JAG prosecutor in the U.S. Navy and has been one of the most vocal supporters of President Donald Trump, said he would work effectively with the Trump administration to make sure the military's active-duty and reserve presence in Florida remains a priority.
"As governor, one of the things you have to do effectively is work constructively with the administration in Washington, and I think people running who say they want to impeach Trump, well, when you become governor and that's your position, how the hell are you going to get anything done for us?" DeSantis said.
"You're not!" a woman in the crowd replied.
Moments later, DeSantis took another shot at Gillum: "I think there's obviously a clear contrast in terms of how we would approach veterans. I think I'm the only one that's really even done anything for veterans," DeSantis said, prompting laughs and applause.
He urged the crowd to talk to fellow veterans "making sure they know the stakes and making sure they have a good understanding about who's going to be there for them, who has been there for them and is one of their brothers."
The Gillum campaign fired back when the Times share DeSantis' comments.
"It's unfortunate Ron DeSantis wants to keep politicizing things that shouldn't be partisan — like caring for veterans or hurricane response," campaign spokeswoman Carlie Waibel said in a statement. "We don't have anything to add but to wish him well."
The latest sparring in the midst of pre-hurricane politics comes after DeSantis drew criticism for not pulling campaign ads critical of Gillum's response to Hurricane Hermine after Michael had formed.
DeSantis brushed that off when the Times asked about it after Tuesday's event.
"You run your campaign the way the run your campaign. It is what it is," he said. "We've had all this planned out long before and we're going to stick with our plan so people will see that unfold in the next day or two."