TAMPA — Hillsborough County became the center of the political universe on Thursday, with President Donald Trump parachuting in for a late pitch to recruit as many much-needed Florida votes as possible.
“We are creating the greatest red wave in history," Trump said, taking the stage just after 2 p.m. under a blistering sun following a brief speech by First Lady Melania Trump.
Trump’s message was similar to the one he’s been delivering in Florida for weeks: That the election is a choice between an economic recovery that he will lead, or a depression his Democratic challenger, Joe Biden, will usher in. Trump touted Thursday’s news that the economy in the third quarter grew at a record annual rate of 33.1 percent, though it’s only a 7.4 percent rise without annualized numbers that generate misleading results in a year like 2020. The nation’s economic output still lags pre-pandemic levels.
Underpinning Trump’s economic contrast with Biden is how the candidates have addressed the resurgent coronavirus pandemic, which has killed more than 225,000 Americans. Biden has hammered Trump for his handling of the outbreak, while Trump declared that the country has seen the worst of it.
“My plan will ensure we have a safe vaccine, you’re going to have it in a few weeks," Trump told the crowd, declaring that seniors would have it first, then the rest of the population. "It’s rounding the turn. It’s rounding the turn.”
Biden’s plan, Trump said, “is to deliver punishing lockdowns." Biden has said he will not lock down the country.
Trump’s afternoon rally, in an open field on the north side of Raymond James Stadium, preceded a drive-in rally Biden had previously scheduled for later at the Florida State Fairgrounds.
As with a Tuesday night rally in Omaha, Neb. that left hundreds stranded on an airport tarmac in near freezing temperatures, Thursday’s rally subjected his supporters to unforgiving elements. An unrelenting sun roasted the attendees, most wearing red and fewer wearing masks. Men tugged their t-shirts away from their bodies and a young girl ran through the rally with a mid morning ice cream cone. Little shade could be found for shelter. While speaking before Trump, Gov. Ron DeSantis had to stop twice to direct medical personnel from the stage to people who suffering from heat exhaustion.
At one point Tampa Fire Rescue firefighters opened up a hose on a fire truck at the back of the event, shooting a plume of water into the air that enveloped much of the venue in a refreshing mist.
The focus on the Cigar City highlights how critical it is as the western terminus of Interstate 4, the oft-cited most important stretch of highway in one of the most important swing states. But the candidates are running out of time to compel voters to the polls: There are just five days left in the election, and already more than 7.4 million Floridians, or more than half of registered voters, have cast ballots.
Democrats had cast more than 47,000 votes than Republicans in Hillsborough County, typically a bellwether county that has shifted further blue. Hillsborough voters picked the eventual president in all but one election from 1960 to 2012. But the streak was broken in 2016, when Democrat Hillary Clinton won Hillsborough by nearly 7 percentage points while Trump won Florida and the White House.
The candidates’ rallies are a study in contrasts, both in style and in appreciation for the pandemic, which is rising in Florida and across the country. Trump’s event featured a packed crowd, most not wearing masks. Biden’s small rally is a socially-distanced drive-in affair.
As has become routine at his Florida rallies, Trump razzed the in-attendance DeSantis and the chairman of the Republican Party of Florida, Joe Gruters.
Trump said he watched from Air Force One as DeSantis spoke. “Did he speak too long today, or what?" Trump asked the crowd. “He looked like he was up there a long time.”
And later, when talking about his election prospects in Florida, Trump offered Gruters an ominous threat: “He’ll be out of there so fast if we don’t win this election," Trump said of the party chairman. "He’ll be gone.”
The rally was held close to the early voting location, inside Raymond James Stadium. Gruters encouraged Hillsborough County residents who haven’t voted to walk over and cast their ballots.
At least one person did. John González walked over after the rally, sporting a red shirt with blue and white stripes, a 2020 Trump mask, several hats and a Trump pin. The Tampa resident of Cuban heritage said his background has shaped his views, and he’s skeptical of Democrats who say they don’t support socialism.
“Government is never the answer,” he said.
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