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Donald Trump riles up thousands of supporters at Jacksonville rally

The president holds his first big rally in Florida since the pandemic started.

JACKSONVILLE — As Florida counties began sending out domestic ballots Thursday, the president landed in Jacksonville to reiterate the claim he’s been making to voters for half a decade: Donald Trump is fighting for America.

In a raucous, meandering hourlong speech given before an outdoor audience of several thousand, Trump repeated dozens of familiar claims, many of them exaggerated or outright false.

For example: “The Republican cities don’t have trouble” with crime. (Jacksonville and Miami, which are led by Republicans, have seen spikes in murders this year.)

“They want to pack the court,” Trump said, referring to a potential Democratic plan to add justices to the Supreme Court. (Senate Democrats are, at best, split on this idea.)

“The Biden (health care) plan would destroy ... protections for pre-existing conditions.” (It would not; the Trump administration is currently fighting in court to end the Obama-era Affordable Care Act, which mandated those protections.)

A largely maskless audience cheered the president’s every talking point. Packed into a scenic vista, complete with an idling Air Force One in the background at Jacksonville’s Cecil Airport, the crowd’s emotion was evident in what amounted to a homecoming for Trump. For months prior to Thursday, the coronavirus pandemic had prevented the president from holding his signature rallies in Florida.

Polls show Trump is running in a virtual dead heat with former Vice President Joe Biden for Florida’s crucial 29 electoral college votes. The Biden campaign put out a statement condemning the president’s handling of the virus, which has killed about 14,000 Floridians.

“President Trump does not have a plan, but I do — to beat COVID-19, build our economy back better, and protect and build upon the Affordable Care Act by giving Americans more choice, reducing health care costs, and making our health care system less complex to navigate,” Biden said in the statement.

President Donald Trump speaks during a campaign rally at Cecil Airport, Thursday in Jacksonville. [ EVAN VUCCI | AP ]

Trump only briefly touched on the American lives lost to the coronavirus, claiming — misleadingly — that the U.S.' excess mortality rate is lower than that of Europe. However, Trump did promise a record recovery from the pandemic.

“We want to get back to normal life. We’ll fully resume. The Florida tourism and hospitality industries will reach record highs,” Trump said. “Next year will be one of the greatest years.”

The president also spoke about a rash of Florida centric issues: He pledged to combat leftist regimes in Latin America, from which many Floridians have fled. He said his administration would support charter schools, a major pillar of Florida’s education system. And he said he would protect Medicaid and Medicare — although his past budgets have called for cuts to those programs relative to currently planned future spending.

Before the president spoke, the crowd enthusiastically greeted several prominent Republican elected officials. U.S. Rep. Matt Gaetz and Gov. Ron DeSantis aggressively made the case for Trump’s reelection.

“Who wants Amy Barrett?” DeSantis said to wild applause, referring to the conservative jurist who sits on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit. “We’ll see what happens. I got a pretty good idea.”

That particular issue was also on the mind of many who attended the event.

The Rev. Jean Clark, an evangelical preacher from Jacksonville, stood outside the rally holding a sign that read “Florida loves Judge Amy Barrett.” Clark said she’d also be happy if Trump picked Florida’s Barbara Lagoa, who sits on the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit — also a finalist for the seat.

Clark said she is a particular fan of Barrett because the judge is “pro life, pro life, pro life.” But her admiration for the president does not end at what she sees as his commitment to socially conservative stances.

“I believe he’s ordained by God, and I believe God is going to help him again,” Clark said of Trump.

President Donald Trump speaks during a campaign rally at Cecil Airport, Thursday in Jacksonville. [ EVAN VUCCI | AP ]

Diamanni Martinez, a house painter from the Jacksonville area, said he supports Trump because he feels the president supports people of faith and believes in the U.S. Constitution.

Like many of the president’s supporters, Martinez said the president’s penchant for controversial statements is part of his appeal.

“He talks a lot of smack, but he backs up what he says,” Martinez said.

Trump’s latest controversy came Wednesday, when he refused to commit to a peaceful transition of power in the event of a Biden win in November. Trump was rebuked by politicians in both parties for the remarks, which flew in the face of a quarter-millennium of American political precedent.

But if Jacksonville’s crowd Thursday was any barometer, Trump’s supporters are behind the president. Carmen Costine, who works for a transportation company in the Jacksonville area, said she doesn’t believe the president can lose in November without rampant fraud. And if that’s the case, she said, why should Trump commit to the results of a potentially unfair election?

“I think if he wins it will probably be from cheating,” Costine said, referring to Biden. “The illegals voting. The felons voting.”

Supporters cheer for President Donald Trump at his campaign rally, Thursday in Jacksonville. [ STAN BADZ | AP ]

Tampa Bay Times elections coverage

AMENDMENTS: State constitutional amendments on the 2020 ballot, explained.

FELONY CONVICTION? Here are Florida’s rules for registering to vote.

MAIL-IN BALLOTS: So you want to vote by mail in Florida? Here’s what you need to know.

POSTAL SERVICE CONCERNS: What’s going on with the U.S. Postal Service and should Florida be worried?

HAVE QUESTIONS ABOUT VOTING IN FLORIDA? WE HAVE THE ANSWERS: We’ve compiled information on voter registration deadlines, rules for voting by mail and more.

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