SANFORD — President Donald Trump, eager to put his coronavirus hospitalization behind him, returned to the campaign trail Monday night in Seminole County, a critical battleground in the state most important to his reelection chances.
Trump emerged on the stage beaming, pointed and then — six days after walking out of Walter Reed as the world’s most famous COVID-19 patient and two weeks after hosting a super spreader event at the White House — he tossed face masks wrapped in plastic into the crowd.
“I went through it. Now they say I’m immune. I feel so powerful,” Trump said, his voice sounding strained but energetic. “I’ll walk into the audience. I’ll walk in there. I’ll kiss everyone in that audience. I’ll kiss the guys and the beautiful women. Everybody. I’ll just give you a big fat kiss.”
Trump spoke for more than an hour, and at times mocked the health precautions taken by his Democratic opponent, former vice president Joe Biden, who has followed the guidance of Trump’s administration more closely than the president himself.
“When you’re the president, you can’t lock yourself in the basement,” Trump said. “You got to get out.”
Trump said he had been energized by his fans and humbled by their support as he returned to the campaign trail on the evening that hearings on Judge Amy Coney Barrett, his third Supreme Court nominee, began on Capitol Hill.
Most public surveys of likely voters show Trump down by several points in Florida. But that was also the case in 2016 at the same juncture in the presidential race, and Trump went on to close the gap in the final days of the election and win the state.
Senior advisers to Trump’s reelection campaign insisted on a Monday call with reporters that current public polling is off.
“Our internal numbers — and we are very confident in where our numbers are — they continue to show a different story. A story that the public poll numbers aren’t articulating,” Corey Lewandowski, the president’s 2016 campaign manager, said. “We’re using the same methodology and the same individuals who did our polls in 2016. The polls that had us right, and the rest of the media wrong.”
Trump told supporters in Sanford he was optimistic about winning the state just as he had four years ago.
“And we’re winning by a lot more now than we were four years ago. Twenty-two days from now, we’re going to win this state. We’re going to win four more years in the White House,” he said.
Thousands of people filled the tarmac of Orlando Sanford International Airport to welcome Trump back to Florida, a state that voted for him in 2016 but remains up for grabs this year. More than 1.6 million ballots have arrived in local election offices by mail, and Trump, who has spent months disparaging the popular voting method, encouraged his supporters to send theirs in.
The crowd sat in bleachers side-by-side or crammed around the stage on the pavement under an unforgiving October sun that gave way to a pleasant fall evening. They were mostly unmasked despite the president’s recent health scare. Many said they were emboldened by Trump’s quick recovery.
A maskless Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis slapped high fives with a line of people as he walked toward the stage before Trump’s arrival.
In a statement, Biden said Trump was bringing to Sanford “nothing but reckless behavior, divisive rhetoric, and fear mongering."
“But, equally dangerous is what he fails to bring: no plan to get this virus that has taken the lives of over 15,000 Floridians under control,” Biden said.
Trump’s supporters on Monday said his campaign appearance was welcome relief.
“It showed the strength that Trump has to overcome that,” said Aidan Kraus of New Smyrna Beach, referring to the president’s battle with the coronavirus. At age 19, this will be his first presidential election. “We need to talk about our reopening again.”
Laura Cohill works for a company that installs water clarification systems. Cautious would-be customers don’t want people in their homes, she said, and business has been slow. She hopes people will see Trump on the campaign trail and mimic his willingness to venture out again.
“I hope he says, ‘Open the country back up. Stop living in fear,’” Cohill said. “Let us go back to work.”
Many public health experts are worried that Trump is sending that very message with his return to the campaign trail. Trump’s contraction of the virus is emblematic of Americans who have refused to follow federal safety guidelines. His recovery, however, is far from typical. Trump, 74, received around-the-clock attention from doctors at Walter Reed Medical Center and his treatment included an experimental drug not available to most patients.
Trump promised the crowd the treatment — a pair of monoclonal antibodies, which he has called a “cure” — would be available to the masses soon, though many logistical hurdles remain.
Trump declared himself “immune" after recovering from the virus, another claim that lacks conclusive evidence from the scientific community. Ahead of his return to the campaign trail, the White House released a note from his personal physician, Sean Conley, that said the president had tested negative for coronavirus on two consecutive days and concluding that Trump “is not infectious to others.”
“He wouldn’t be here if he wasn’t good to go,” said Maria Tyre as she awaited Trump’s Sanford appearance.
The set up for the night put Trump on a stage with a buffer between him and supporters. Hand sanitizer was available at the entrances. His staff and security, including perimeter U.S. secret service officers, wore masks. The officers that stood around Trump, though, were unmasked.
Cooling stations inside an airport hanger provided crowd some relief from the heat. Paramedics frequently were deployed to help people exposed to hours of 85-degree sunshine. During Trump’s speech, medics rushed to aid a woman who fainted.
Many people walked from parking spots from a half a mile away. Some arrived the night before to get a good spot inside. Those who came later strained to see the stage from the back.
On the road leading to the venue, Bre Shoh of Jacksonville was parked alongside a table selling T-shirts, MAGA hats and $10 Trump-themed MAGA masks. The gear came from a friend who had made it to sell in Charlotte at the Republican National Convention, before the coronavirus canceled most of the festivities.
“It’s a liquidation thing,” said Shoh, 27. He didn’t have many sales by late Monday afternoon.
Trump was scheduled to visit Sanford nearly two weeks ago following his first debate performance. Instead, he tweeted early that morning that he had tested positive for coronavirus. All campaign events were subsequently canceled. By the end of the day, Trump was taken by helicopter to Walter Reed, where he stayed for the weekend.
In his absence, Trump flooded Florida with family and close allies. Donald Trump Jr., his son, toured the state on Friday and Sunday. Vice President Mike Pence held rallies with Latinos and seniors in Central Florida on Saturday. His wife, Second Lady Karen Pence, visited Tampa on Tuesday.
Trump continues to emphasize this part of the state at critical junctures in his first term. He held his first post-inauguration rally in Melbourne. He officially relaunched his campaign in Orlando. His visit to Sanford with just 22 days remaining in the race emphasizes Seminole County’s emergence as a key swing county. Trump won it four years ago, but women in its booming suburbs have turned against the president, giving Democrats confidence they can turn it blue in November.
Brad Virgin, an Orlando-area chiropractor, said Trump’s ailment did not change his view of the virus or Trump’s handling of it. He and his wife, Karen, both wore masks to event, but said they didn’t think the president had failed to take health precautions for himself or the country.
“Did he make missteps?” Virgin said. “I don’t think so. Nobody knew what this was going to do.”
McClatchy D.C. Bureau Staff Writer Francesca Chambers and Miami Herald Staff Writer David Smiley contributed to this story.
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