In Florida, key Republicans keep quiet on Donald Trump

A supporter of Donald Trump outside a rally where Indiana Gov. Mike Pence spoke in Charlotte, N.C., on Monday. (Travis Dove/The New York Times)
A supporter of Donald Trump outside a rally where Indiana Gov. Mike Pence spoke in Charlotte, N.C., on Monday. (Travis Dove/The New York Times)
Published Oct. 11, 2016

As Donald Trump dug in Monday after a ferocious debate performance designed to rally his base, Florida Republican leaders remained largely in hiding, illustrating the agonizing position they now face.

"People are shell-shocked," said Republican consultant Alex Patton of Gainesville.

A number of elected Republicans condemned Trump's sexually aggressive comments in a 2005 video that surfaced Friday, but there was no rush to disavow complete support for him and the debate likely made that harder.

"He did stop the bleeding. People have stopped jumping off the bandwagon," said Patton, who is not among the wait-and-see crowd.

"I'm disgusted. My 13-year-old son asked me what it means when someone grabs a girl by the p----. As a father it just smacks you in the face. I'm so tired of having to defend Trump to my friends."

Three prominent Republicans, Sen. Marco Rubio, Gov. Rick Scott and Attorney General Pam Bondi, were among those who kept quiet Monday. The state GOP chairman was also mute. The Trump campaign in Florida could muster up only two comments of praise after the debate — and both were members of Trump's paid staff.

Rubio, in particular, was under pressure to rescind his already tepid support for Trump, and Democratic Senate opponent Patrick Murphy, trailing in the polls, sought to make the most of the opportunity. In a morning call with reporters, Murphy said Rubio needs to do more to "stand up to Trump" instead of "silently standing by" while Trump "boasts about sexually assaulting women."

Rubio on Friday called Trump's words "vulgar, egregious and impossible to justify." But he has apparently reasoned that he must stick with Trump rather than risk angering conservative activists he needs to turn out and vote.

Trump's debate performance was exactly what those activists wanted to hear after a poor showing in the first one. Sunday in St. Louis, he attacked Clinton over her handling of sensitive emails, comments she made in private speeches, Obamacare and immigration.

Most explosively, Trump brought with him women who say Bill Clinton had abused them, one accusing the former president of rape. Trump also said if elected, he'd have Clinton investigated and thrown in jail — a version of the lusty "lock her up" chants that are a mainstay of his rallies.

"Special prosecutor, here we come," Trump pledged Monday during a rally in Pennsylvania.

"After that first debate, he learned fast. He can't sit back. He went after her," said Lucille J. Justin of Plantation. She said she believed Trump's words in the video were, as he insisted Sunday, "locker room talk."

"I'm 79 years old, I've been around the block a couple of times," Justin said. "When you get a group of guys together, how do they talk about women? My little virgin ears have heard it. It was 11 years ago."

But respondents in a Tampa Bay Times Florida Insider Poll said the video was fatal to Trump's chances. Overall, 56.5 percent of the 155 surveyed reached that conclusion, including about 46 percent of Republicans. The poll of top campaign professionals, fundraisers, lobbyists, political scientists and activists was conducted after Sunday's debate.

Scientific polls have shown a close Florida race with Clinton leading by just under 3 percentage points, according to the average. The Florida Insiders overwhelmingly think Clinton will win the state, which is crucial for Trump's presidential chances.

"It's hard for me to say it's fatal, when I think he's already dead," said one Republican.

"I said it was fatal, but honestly, why are Republicans outraged by this when they weren't by his previous attacks on other women, the disabled, Hispanics, African-Americans, our allies, Muslims, and heroes like John McCain?" said a Democrat. (The Times allows participants to answer anonymously to encourage frank assessments.)

Republican operative Rick Wilson, who is working with independent candidate Evan McMullin, predicted in an interview more damaging information about Trump will be released. He faulted the state's GOP leaders for not speaking out.

"In what context do you want a presidential candidate who stands on stage and says, 'I want to jail my opponent'? All those lines he used to please the Breitbart crowd are political poison for Republicans trying to win or hold office in the rest of the country. Conservatives who are sticking with this guy at this point have made a deal with the devil."

Supporters of Jeb Bush, among the 16 candidates Trump smothered in the primaries, lamented the election on Facebook on Sunday night. One posted a bumper sticker that read: "Don't blame me. I was for JEB!"

Times political editor Adam C. Smith, Times computer-assisted reporting specialist Connie Humburg and Times/Herald staff writer Kristen M. Clark contributed to this report.