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  1. Florida Politics

Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders bring their presidential primary battle to Tampa Bay

Sen. Bernie Sanders speaks to a crowd of over 8,000 at the Expo Center at the Florida State Fairgrounds on Tuesday evening in Tampa.
Sen. Bernie Sanders speaks to a crowd of over 8,000 at the Expo Center at the Florida State Fairgrounds on Tuesday evening in Tampa.
Published Mar. 11, 2016

TAMPA — Just days before the Florida primary, presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders brought their messages — and their battle for the Democratic nomination — to bay area voters on Thursday.

"Is Tampa Bay ready for some radical ideas?" Sanders asked the 9,000 people who packed into the Florida State Fairgrounds Expo Hall for his evening rally.

LIVE BLOG: The latest from the Clinton and Sanders rallies in Tampa

The Vermont senator delivered his usual stump speech: addressing economic inequality, attacking Wall Street greed and a "rigged" economic system, calling for free college tuition and declaring health care the "right" of every American.

Yet Sanders still trailed Clinton in the polls on Thursday. She led by a 2-to-1 margin — 62 percent to 30.5 percent — according to an average of polls by RealClearPolitics.com.

Clinton, the former Secretary of State, gave a much more nuts-and-bolts speech addressing Tampa Bay's infrastructure needs to the crowd of 600 who attended her lunchtime rally at the Ritz Ybor.

She took aim not at Republican candidates Donald Trump or Ted Cruz or even her rival Democrat, Sanders. Instead, Clinton repeatedly went after another Republican: Florida Gov. Rick Scott.

She blasted the governor's 2011 decision to turn down $2.4 billion in federal funds to develop high-speed rail between Tampa and Orlando.

"It makes absolutely no sense," Clinton said, "especially when we know that we're going to have to do high-speed rail if we're going to have a competitive economy."

If she is elected, Clinton told the crowd, she will revisit high-speed rail for the Tampa Bay area and support infrastructure projects that support jobs at Port Tampa Bay.

She also mocked the Scott administration's directive to state employees not to use the words "climate change" and pledged to support renewable energy in Florida.

Of Scott's order to state employees, she said: "I found this one hard to believe. I mean, you've just got to shake your head at that."

When Republicans say they can't talk about climate change because they're not scientists, Clinston said, there's a cure for that: "Go talk to a scientist."

Sanders also criticized Republicans for their obstinance on climate change, which he said is holding Florida back from becoming a leader in renewable energy.

"The state of Florida has an extraordinary natural resource: its called sunlight," Sanders said, "and this state should be a leader in the world in producing solar energy."

Clinton portrayed her likely Republican rivals as ready to roll back abortion rights, marriage equality and Planned Parenthood, while giving the National Rifle Association anything it wants.

So when people ask her who she wants to run against, Clinton said, "given what they've all said, I will take on any one of them."

Sanders also addressed abortion rights, criticizing Republicans' concern for "family values."

"What they mean is that no woman in this room, in this state, in this country, should be able to control their own body," Sanders said. "I disagree."

That line, and his lines about free college tuition and solar energy, drew some of Sanders' biggest applause of the night.

The rallies drew passionate fans of both candidates.

"This is about who's best prepared to lead us," Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn said in introducing Clinton, who he said is poised to "break that last barrier."

Clinton supporters said they liked her experience, her chances in the general election and her positions on issues such as immigration and marriage equality.

"Somebody's got to stop Donald Trump — or Ted Cruz — and she's the best person to do it," said Sandra Cunningham, 45, of Tampa. With either Republican, she said, "it's a matter of do you want a theocracy or do you want a dictatorship?"

Michael McGraw, a 29-year-old event manager from St. Petersburg, said he has supported Clinton since her run in 2008 and said he likes that her support comes "from a diverse range of people."

"I thought she was ready then, and now, eight years later, just her vast experience puts her way above everybody else," said Mary Frances Granell, 61, a retired Gaither High School history and humanities teacher from Tampa.

Sanders drew a much younger crowd.

At times it felt more like a musical festival than a political rally. The band Come Back Alice played its song catalog and Beatles covers as attendees danced. The crowd sang Bern' it up along with them and a slam poet compared Sanders to a Jedi Knight — or perhaps he meant a Jedi Master.

St. Petersburg's Alyssa O'Mack, 22, said she was thrilled to see the number of young people who turned out. She was a teenager when she first went to see then-presidential candidate Barack Obama at a 2008 rally in Dunedin.

"I didn't see half as many millennials there as I do here today," she said. "I just hope they actually get out and vote."

Patrick McGuire, 35, of Tampa danced with his 1-year-old son Elion in his arms before the Sanders rally.

"I'm not here for myself, I'm here for my son," McGuire said, "and the person I vote for is going to impact him more than it's going to impact me."

Mark Maxey wasn't the typical Sanders supporter. For one thing, he's 56, very much a rarity in a sea of millennials. He also wore an American flag cowboy hat, American flag sunglasses and snakeskin boots.

But the Hillsborough County firefighter said he agrees with just about everything Sanders stands for.

"I like Bernie because he represents the middle class," he said, "and I work for a socialist organization. Anybody who gets a pay check from a government agency is a socialist, they just don't know it yet."

Sanders did add some new material to Thursday's stump speech: he touted his upset win over Clinton in this week's Michigan primary. He used that victory to whip up the crowd in anticipation of Florida's primary on Tuesday.

"I'm getting the feeling that what we saw in Michigan, we're going to see here in Florida," he said. "The reason that we are doing so well, the reason there is so much momentum for this campaign, is that we're doing something pretty radical in American politics: we're telling the truth.

"And here are some of the truths we are telling: No. 1, no president, not Bernie Sanders or anyone else, can address the very serious crisis we face alone.

"We need a political revolution. You are that revolution."

Despite trailing in the polls, Sanders flat-out declared that "if there is a large voter turnout (in Florida), we will win."

He also aimed a few barbs at the GOP frontrunner, Trump.

If they go head-to-head in the general election on Nov. 8, Sanders said he will win.

"Love trumps hatred," he said.

Times staff photographer Zack Wittman contributed to this report.

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