ORLANDO — President Donald Trump’s pitch for four more years began with a relitigation of the last four years.
To a packed Orlando arena Tuesday night, Trump referenced Hillary Clinton more than his potential 2020 opponents. He ripped into the polls, the “witch hunt,” the “hoax,” the “phony dossier,” and the Democrats who don’t want to move on from the Mueller report. He listed his claim of accomplishments on jobs, conservative judges and military spending that he said are overlooked by the media.
In an ominous warning about those who oppose his reelection, Trump told the 20,000-plus supporters at the Amway Center: “They want to destroy you.”
Halfway through his 80-minute address, Trump finally announced what the crowd wanted to hear. He was running for re-election.
“The only thing these corrupt politicians will understand is an earthquake at the ballot box,” Trump said. “We did it once, now we’re going to do it again. And this time we’re going to finish the job.”
Kicking off his campaign in Orlando underscores the importance of Florida to Trump’s reelection. A Republican hasn’t won the White House without the Sunshine State in almost a century. Trump topped Democrat Hillary Clinton here by 120,000 votes out 9.3 million ballots cast in 2016 en route to victory.
Trump’s first rally after his inauguration was February 2017 in nearby Melbourne. Since then, he has visited the state more than 100 times — to stump, to work and to golf. And his son Eric Trump promised many more trips here in the 17 months between now and the election.
Tuesday night’s turnout was a demonstration of organization and energy that Democrats cannot yet match. Split among 20-plus candidates (many who will be in Miami next week for the first round of debates), Democrats lack a standard bearer and a counter punch for now.
Gov. Ron DeSantis greeted Trump and First Lady Melania Trump on the Orlando tarmac. Sens. Marco Rubio and Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., joined the Trumps on the flight. Later, Trump thanked them for voting for his Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh despite sexual assault allegations. The crowd gave Rubio and Graham a standing ovation.
Later, Trump let the Florida crowd weigh in on his new campaign slogan: Keep America Great.
Despite hundreds of millions ready to spend on advertisements, the historic advantage of incumbency and low unemployment, Trump’s surrogates warned supporters of an uphill battle. Trump’s approval ratings remain underwater and polls show a difficult re-election fight.
Internally, his own campaign leaked poll numbers that showed him behind former Vice President Joe Biden. Those pollsters were fired, and Trump called it “fake news,” but Biden was clearly on the mind of Donald Trump Jr., on Tuesday. Of the 24 Democrats vying for the party’s nomination, Biden was just about all Trump Jr., talked about in Orlando.
“If 2020 was a fair fight, this would over by now,” Trump, Jr. said. “But it’s not. “
The response, as articulated Tuesday night? Ignore the polls. Ignore the media. Ignore the critics. They underestimated Trump the first time. On a jumbotron, a montage of Democrats, comedians, pundits and even George Clooney laughed at Trump’s candidacy, dismissing him. In footage that now feels ancient, they declared over and over: “Donald Trump will not be president of the United States.”
But the scene inside the Amway Center was one even Trump’s most diehard fans could hardly have imagined in 2015. What started as an escalator ride almost exactly four years ago led to this: thousands in red MAGA hats waving “Trump-Pence” signs and chanting, “Four more years.”
Trump’s most eager supporters are ready for the fight. Hundreds lined up outside the Amway Arena hours before the doors opened or watched Trump’s inner circle give pre-game speeches on a big screen across the street. Typical summertime in Orlando: the weather flipped from a downpour to a beating sun and oppressive humidity.
Brenda Soussan, 65, of Venice, had been a somewhat reluctant Republican — “sick of the swamp” — before Trump ran for president, she said. Since then, she’d become an enthusiastic supporter, particularly of his efforts to end what she called an “invasion” at the Mexican border.
“He can’t get everything done in four years,” she said of his re-election announcement, standing outside four hours before the rally was set to begin. Her fiance Mark Devine added: “Especially with Democrats getting in the way.”
Republicans controlled Congress for Trump’s first two years. But any obstacles Trump had encountered in Washington, both said, were largely the fault of the other party for being unwilling to compromise with Trump. They also dismissed early polls suggesting that Trump was at a disadvantage in close states like Florida, pointing to the crowd that had gathered early for Tuesday’s rally.
“I hope he sees how much support he really has,” Devine said.
Soussan waved at the line around them that had at that point snaked half a mile out in the shimmering summer heat. Her nails, painted red, white and blue, glinted in the sun.
“This is like standing in line for the Beatles before they’re going to retire,” she said.
Two blocks from the Amway Center, anti-Trump protesters chanted “not my dictator” and “impeach him now.” They were joined by a special guest: a 20-foot inflatable balloon depicting Trump in a diaper. The balloon, previously seen at protests of the President’s events in the U.K. and Ireland, was shipped to Orlando after a local crowdfunding campaign raised $5,000 to transport the balloon.
The protest, organized by state Democrat leaders and local activists, was dubbed the “Win with Love Rally” and lasted for over two hours. Billie Jean Pryor, a 32-year old bartender in Orlando, said she wants Trump to lose the election because of his misogynist rhetoric. Pryor held a handmade sign that read, “my body, my rights.”
“I’m a mother and I’m terrified by how my daughters future is going to be dictated by this man who talks about grabbing women,” Pryor said. “I would support any rational being for our next president, but maybe it’s time for a woman president.”
Republicans said they are ready for the challenge, whoever it is.
“It’s on, everybody. Time for round two,” Vice President Mike Pence said. “The 503-day campaign for America’s future starts tonight.”