TAMPA — Perhaps a comedy club should’ve hosted Michael Bloomberg’s first campaign event in Florida.
The former New York City mayor’s intro to Florida voters on Sunday was a winding, 3-minute set of one-liners. He riffed on crab claws, his bill for breakfast at Trips Diner in Seminole Heights, the Tampa Bay Rays, Derek Jeter, Boston sports writers, baseball’s sign stealing scandal and snowbirds.
“I know you might be surprised to see me here," Bloomberg deadpanned. "I’m a New Yorker in Florida in mid-winter. It’s highly unusual.”
That last quip, a vow to make President Donald Trump a full-time Florida resident, sent the 300 at Embarc Collective in downtown Tampa into a frenzy. Bloomberg said he is the only candidate with the experience, the message and, yes, the money, who can make that happen.
There were plenty of people in the room who believed him.
“He’ll get under Trump’s skin,” said Clarence Peterson, a 28-year-old teacher from Bradenton and a Republican who opposes his party’s leader.
Christie Fischer said she was rooting for Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and she adores former Vice President Joe Biden. He once kissed her on the cheek.
“In an ordinary election year, they would be fine. But this year is different," Fischer said. “For the Democrats, it’s a binary question: Can you beat Mr. Trump or can you not? After the last debate, I concluded Mr. Bloomberg was the one who could do that job for us.”
Bloomberg is hoping there are millions of voters who feel the same. He’s betting big on it. The billionaire has reportedly already spent $250 million since entering the race just three months ago, unleashing an army of staffers and ads in key states, including Florida.
Opponents have accused him of buying the election. Bloomberg reiterated Sunday that he would spend $1 billion to defeat Trump regardless of who wins the Democratic nomination. He also promised not to tweet as president, which earned just as much applause.
Floridians who haven’t seen Bloomberg tout his business credentials and contrast his record running New York to Trump must not have a television or the internet. On the airwaves of the country’s largest swing state, Bloomberg is already running a general election campaign against Trump, one 60-second commercial at a time.
“All the other Democratic candidates are spending most in Iowa and New Hampshire, except for one: Me,” Bloomberg told his supporters. “We need to win Florida.”
Bloomberg left out why he’s not in those states: He entered the race too late to make the ballot. He will be sidelined in Nevada and South Carolina too. Bloomberg has missed his competitors in debates, as he hasn’t qualified for any of those either.
The New Yorker’s unconventional — perhaps improbable — path to the nomination hinges on Florida and other large states voting on Super Tuesday (March 3) or later. Florida’s primary is on March 17.
“I worry he has jumped in too late,” said Mary O’Hara, a retired healthcare worker from St. Petersburg.
Bloomberg’s visit to Tampa was the first public campaign event by a candidate since former presidential candidate Beto O’Rourke stopped in Seminole Heights last summer. He is also the first Democratic contender to hold a rally in Florida since the calendar turned to 2020.
The largely white, mostly middle-age crowd consisted of Democrats, independents and even some Republicans. Most united in their fear that the Democratic field is still too big, too disparate and too focused on winning progressives. Former Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn, who introduced Bloomberg but isn’t endorsing, said he doesn’t know how most of the campaigns will recover to win general election voters.
“It strikes me that the only two candidates that are capable of threading that needle are Bloomberg and Biden,” Buckhorn said. Other local dignitaries in attendance included Tampa Bay Lightning and Embarc Collective owner Jeff Vinik, Hillsborough County Clerk of the Courts Pat Frank and former Tampa City Councilman Harry Cohen.
Beth Harrison lived in New York during Bloomberg’s three terms as mayor and approved of his stewardship. The independent said she registered Democrat for the primary to vote for Bloomberg because of his involvement with causes she believes in, like climate change and gun safety.
“He puts his money where his mouth is,” Harrison said.
From Tampa, Bloomberg traveled to Miami for a “United for Mike" rally, an outreach event aimed at South Florida’s Jewish community. Trump campaign spokesman Emerson George said Bloomberg was “wasting his time” in Florida.
“Florida is enjoying an historic economic boom thanks to the leadership of President Trump and Governor DeSantis,” George said.
Bloomberg said Trump is afraid to face him.
“The contrast against Donald Trump and I could not be any clearer. I’m the un-Trump. He breaks promises, I keep them. He’s a climate denier, I’m an engineer, " Bloomberg said. "He looks out for the people who inherited their wealth. I’m self made.”