TAMPA — Cheering, clapping, Florida 20-somethings of all races screamed their approval of a white septuagenarian from Vermont, Sen. Bernie Sanders, in a rally for Andrew Gillum and the Democratic ticket at the University of South Florida on Wednesday.
Some of the students didn't look old enough to have voted for Sanders in the 2016 presidential election, but that didn't damp the enthusiasm of the crowd, estimated by organizers at more than 700.
Focusing his speech heavily on national issues, Sanders told the crowd their generation is the one with the most to lose from what he called government by "billionaires (and) right-wing extremists who ignore the needs of the people" in Washington and Tallahassee — and also the ones with the power to end it.
"Republicans win when voter turnout is low," he said. On election night, "If the guy on the TV says voter turnout is really high in Florida, you can turn the TV off because Andrew Gillum is the governor.
"If voter turnout is low, you're going to end up with right-wing radical leadership in Florida."
But Sanders said the signs aren't necessarily favorable — he was told just before the speech that only 81 early votes had been cast in the 2,900-voter precinct that includes much of the USF campus.
After the speech, attorney general candidate Sean Shaw, who also spoke at the rally, led a group of students to the early voting site on the campus.
Shaw and candidates Chris King for lieutenant governor and Jeremy Ring for chief financial officer also spoke, but Sanders' speech focused heavily on Gillum.
Sanders pleased the crowd with a litany of issues from his 2016 presidential primary campaign which he said Gillum also supports – a "Medicare for all" single-payer health care system, free tuition at public colleges and universities and a $15-hour minimum wage.
And he blasted Donald Trump, who he said is "on the ballot" in the election.
Throughout history, he said, presidents of all ideologies have understood, "When you get to the Oval Office, your sacred duty is to bring the American people together" — but not Trump, "who for cheap political points has been trying to divide us up."
Sanders also hit a rally at the University of Central Florida on Wednesday, as the Gillum campaign clearly sought to capitalize on his popularity with younger voters and particularly college students, to boost young voter turnout.
The Sanders events also suggest Gillum isn't worried about the Republican attacks calling him a "socialist." Sanders has called himself a Democratic Socialist.
Not surprisingly, the national Republican Party reiterated that attack following Sanders' speeches. In a statement emailed to reporters, spokesman Joe Jackson said, "No one is surprised to see Andrew Gillum and Sean Shaw embrace self-avowed socialist Bernie Sanders with open arms."
Sanders clearly was something of a hero to some of the students at the event.
Fiona Kearns of Tampa, a chemistry Ph.D. candidate, said it caused her "an internal struggle" to choose between Sanders and the potential first woman president, Hillary Clinton, in the 2016 primary, but she chose Sanders for his platform, including universal health care, and his emphasis on science.
"He doesn't pander to young people — he doesn't try to be cool," said medical student Keith Zimmerman of Tampa. "He doesn't try to be anyone but himself."
Several students said they hadn't even heard of what may be Gillum's biggest handicap in the race, an FBI investigation of possible corruption in city government in Tallahassee, where Gillum is mayor.
"The FBI is often used against someone the establishment doesn't want in power," said freshman biology student Taylor Cook of Jacksonville, who had heard about it.
Gillum's appeal to minority voters was a topic at the rally.
"It's important to have a representative who looks like you," said Alliyah Edwards, a senior political science and criminology major from St. Petersburg. "It's time. The state is always changing."
Shaw is making history as the first black major party nominee for attorney general, but catching comparatively little notice.
"I don't hear a lot of people talking about it," said Edwards.