Polls have shown that the Republican frontrunner is leading the pack, but many attending a rally for him this week said they were just there for the show
Donald Trump looked across a crowd of 12,000 screaming people on Wednesday night and, for just a moment, he seemed shocked by his own success.
Trump is kicking ass in Florida, he said. Can you believe it?
If Trump is splitting the Republican party, the fault line runs across Floridas geographic corner. People here say of the southern peninsula, the farther south you go, the more north you get its a land of snowbirds and retirees and New Yorkers. But the states panhandle, to the west, identifies more closely with neighbors Alabama and Georgia, and with hunters and military veterans.
Trump knows how to find an audience. He made his first Florida campaign stop at the Pensacola Bay Center, in the far west of the state, surrounded by numerous naval and air force bases. His strategy became clear as a series of introductory speakers took the stage. They included retired naval captain Allen Brady, who spent six years as a prisoner in Vietnams infamous Hanoi Hilton, and retired army ranger Gary ONeal, who claims that he once decapitated a man with his bare hands, then threw the head at another enemy. He told the crowd how he bled on seven continents, which quieted the room for a moment while people did the math to include Antarctica.
The clearest outline of Trumps appeal came from Kathryn Gates-Skipper, the first female marine to fight in combat. She talked about her veteran husbands struggle to claim benefits after a duty-related injury, and then leaned into the microphone. Donald J Trump is gonna fight for his veterans, right? The crowd exploded.
After the introductions, the Bay Centers speaker system pumped out Eye of the Tiger, and Trump emerged to the sort of screaming welcome usually reserved for boy bands. He worked his way slowly toward the podium, arriving halfway through the second verse.
Amazing! Amazing! he said.
His speech lasted about 70 minutes and he did not use a teleprompter. Instead he roamed across subjects in what has become his trademark campaign style, offering broad declarations:
Really dishonest people. Bad people, he said, gesturing to the press area.
Later: The Persians are great negotiators.
And: So we have a president whos African American. Great. I love that.
And: Theyre great people, the evangelicals.
And of Mexico: One way or another, mark my words, theyre gonna pay for the wall.
The declarations came in packets, in call-and-response form, so the crowd could respond with boos (Persians) and cheers (the wall). The talk didnt arrive at any destination or offer any solutions, but the general theme was of toughness and winning, about leveraging Americas might against China, Mexico, Iraq, Iran, Europe in general, Syrian refugees, and the audio engineer who installed Trumps microphone.
I dont like this mic, he said midway through the speech. Whoever the hell brought this mic system, dont pay the son of a bitch that put it in Dont pay em. Dont pay em. You know, I believe in paying, but when somebody does a bad job like this stupid mic you shouldnt pay the bastard. Terrible. Terrible. Its true. And youve gotta be tough with your people So, were not going to pay. I guarantee, Im not paying for this mic.
The crowd cheered wildly: hes tough on audio issues.
There was one brief scuffle with protesters, who chanted Fuck Trump and waved a poster bearing his name and a giant middle finger. But Trumps security force, which was pervasive, hustled them from the auditorium in seconds. Most people didnt seem to realize anything had happened.
What remains unclear is whether any of it the crowds, the declarations, the cheers will mean anything in voting booths. In November, a Florida Atlantic University poll found Trump leading the Republican pack at 36%, far ahead of Senator Marco Rubio of Florida at 18% and the states former governor Jeb Bush, at just 8.9%. But many in the Pensacola crowd said they just came to the rally for a show.
Casey Geloneck, a young pilot from the Pensacola area, said he didnt plan to vote for Trump, but came for the spectacle, mostly, and to hear what he has to say.
Is there anything Trump could say to win his vote?
Yeah. Gimme some details. Any kind of plan, Geloneck said. Hes all about the platitudes. Thats asking me to trust someone without knowing what hes going to do.
In the end, he said, he expects hell vote for Rubio.
That was common, among even the supporters waving Trump placards; they wanted to vote for someone else but came to see the show, especially considering Trumps commanding lead in polls over other Republican candidates. I planned to vote for Ben Carson, said Marcello Caridi, who runs a ministry in Pensacola and said Carsons spiritual side appealed to him. But its just not happening.
The day before Trumps appearance in Florida, Barack Obama made an oblique but clear reference to Trump in his final State of the Union address, saying: Thats not telling it like it is. Its just wrong. It diminishes us in the eyes of the world, which may not be surprising from an outgoing president.
But then South Carolinas governor, Nikki Haley, a rising Republican star, delivered the mainstream GOP response and stiff-armed Trump just as firmly. Some people think that you have to be the loudest voice in the room to make a difference, she said. Thats just not true.
Her speech signaled a shift in the party, and it didnt escape the attendees at Trumps rally. The establishment seems to be saying, We dont want any part of that, Geloneck said.
After the rally, a small group of protesters assembled on a sidewalk outside the Bay Center. They decried Trumps plan to temporarily ban all Muslims from entering the country. A Trump supporter emerged from the building and immediately clashed with the knot of protesters: A buddy of mine died two months ago, courtesy of who? The hajis, he shouted, using battlefield slang for Muslims. His name was Andy Kermpy, and he wore a military haircut and camouflage jacket Trumps targeted demographic for the night.
What if I told you I was Muslim? the protester shouted back.
Id say Im sorry, you want to go out and get some bacon?
Kermpy walked away, yelling toward the sky, Bikinis! Bacon! And beer!
But a few minutes later, asked whether he plans to vote for Trump, Kermpy dialed back his bravado. Ill say, I love the guy to death, he said.
So hell vote for Trump?
I wanted Ben Carson, he said, almost whispering. He was a childhood hero of mine, as a brain surgeon. But he doesnt have the funding and the connections.