THE VILLAGES — Vice President Mike Pence visited the heart of a Florida’s largest retirement community Saturday and said he and President Donald Trump needed another term to ensure police are funded, America’s troops are respected and conservative judges keep getting appointed.
“It’s going to take at least four more years to drain that swamp,” Pence told audience in The Villages, a sprawling retirement community in Central Florida with a critical bloc of conservative voters.
Undeterred by the heat and unbothered by the lack of social distancing, Pence found a receptive crowd in several thousand people who packed a parking lot to watch him. They didn’t need convincing.
This was the base.
Here in the Villages, they’re barraged by pro-Trump sentiments all day, via the Fox News radio programming that’s pumped through the speakers of their community squares. When many of them go home, they watch Fox News on cable.
“For the last four years, I’ve been totally Trump every day,” said Marcella Ritzuto, 57, who resides in The Villages and voted for the first time four years ago. She said she watches hours of Fox News every day, “to hear what they’re saying about him.”
But Pence and Trump need converts. There’s an increasingly small undecided pool of Floridians to sway in the next few weeks. Ballots of 1.5 million people have already arrived in Florida election offices with Democrats outpacing Republicans by about 340,000.
Pence encouraged Saturday’s crowd to speak to their neighbors and ignore the polls, which show former Vice President Joe Biden, the Democrat nominee, has opened a narrow lead in Florida, a state Trump cannot afford to lose. At this time four years ago, Hillary Clinton was “measuring the curtains in the oval office,” Pence said.
“The choice in this election is whether America remains America,” Pence said.
The summer of listless virtual events and campaigning from a distance is officially over — at least for Republicans. Saturday was full of familiar swing state sights and sounds — the heartland populist John Mellencamp blaring from speakers, buttons worn and signs waved and chants of “Four more years!" Pence rolled up in a giant bus emblazoned with a picture of him and Trump.
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Despite the ongoing public health concerns from the coronavirus outbreak, the Trump campaign is undergoing a blitz of in-person campaign events in Florida. Donald Trump Jr., the president’s son, traveled across the state Friday with stops from the Panhandle to Tampa. Pence held a rally with Latinos before his event in The Villages. Trump Jr. returns to Tampa on Sunday, followed by Second Lady Karen Pence on Monday.
The push will culminate Monday night when Trump ends his brief COVID-induced hiatus from the campaign trail with a rally in Sanford.
While it’s the kind of rigorous schedule that the Sunshine State typically sees in the final stretch before Election Day, the flurry of events this year comes with additional risks as the country — and Florida — grapple with a pandemic.
In the area in and around The Villages, where residents must be at least 55 years old, cases are slightly on the rise. One in every 66 residents have contracted coronavirus, according to a Tampa Bay Times analysis of state Department of Health data, and the rate of new deaths is 38 percent higher than the rest of the state.
The vast majority of coronavirus deaths are people over the age of 65. Yet neither that nor the recent White House outbreak that hospitalized Trump discouraged turnout, to the chagrin of Democrats.
“The leader of America’s response to COVID-19 is holding a super spreader event in a senior community,” Guy Cecil, the leader of the Democratic Super PAC Priorities USA tweeted. “Shameful.”
Ahead of Pence’s visit, two billboards in Central Florida carried a message from the Biden campaign: “COVID cases are spiking. This administration failed us.” The last two words were displayed in giant letters.
Earlier in the day, a caravan of golf carts supporting Vice President Joe Biden dropped ballots off at a drop box.
“The Trump administration proves every single day they have no interest in the public health and safety of Floridians,” said Jackie Lee, Biden’s state director in Florida.
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