TAMPA — If his fans worry Donald Trump might start heeding GOP leaders, tone down his rhetoric and shift to subdued, “presidential” teleprompter speeches, his rally Saturday at the Tampa Convention Center should put to rest concerns he may become boring and conventional.
Once a Donald Trump, it seems, always a Donald Trump.
For more than 45 rambling minutes, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee repeatedly mocked “Crooked Hillary” Clinton, calling her “a total mess” and “unstable.” He threw his arms around the American flag, literally, to show his love of America. He called for his Republican party to “get their act together” and unify behind him -- even as he trashed fellow Republicans Mitt Romney (“a stone cold loser”) and Jeb Bush (“Who the hell cares?”).
Trump scoffed at accusations that he’s racist, touting an endorsement from boxing promoter Don King that King has denied making, and he apologized for insensitivity in referring to Democratic Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren as “Pocahontas” because she had claimed Cherokee heritage.
“Yes I will apologize — to Pocahontas,” said Trump, as the crowd of about 4,000 roared. “I’ll apologize, because Pocahontas is insulted.”
And Trump left no doubt that he is determined to win Florida’s 29 electoral votes.
“I’ll be here so much, I’ll be in Florida, I’ll be with you so much over the next five months that you’re going to say, ‘Please keep him the hell out of Florida. He’s driving us crazy,’ “ Trump quipped. “Seriously, we need Florida. It’s absolutely imperative. They say if you don’t win Florida, it’s over.”
Among those warming up the crowd before he spoke to the half-full convention hall were Florida Gov. Rick Scott, who recounted that much like Trump this year, pundits in 2010 doubted he would win the governor’s mansion as a businessman outsider.
Attorney General Pam Bondi made no mention of the controversy swarming around her lately, for having solicited a $25,000 campaign donation from Trump while her office was reviewing consumer fraud complaints against Trump University. She praised Trump’s promise to build a massive wall along America’s southern border, while Hillary Clinton “wants to build a wall around herself to protect her from the FBI.”
Trump has had a rough week, with Republican leaders across the country rebuking him for suggesting a judge can’t fairly preside over a Trump University lawsuit because the judge is Mexican-American. But such concern about Trump’s sharp edges and knack for offending people were hard to find in the Tampa crowd Saturday.
“I’m a 37-year-old Christian white women. This is the first time I’ve ever registered to vote,” said Brooke Barna, a full-time mother from New Port Richey. “I registered Republican to vote for Donald Trump. My grandmother’s 77 years old, been a Democrat her whole life and just switched parties to vote for Donald Trump. This is definitely a movement. I don’t care who he turns off. Whoever he turns off can go vote for Hillary or go jump off the bridge for all we care. We want true Americans or patriots, and not those looking out for all of us, and not their own pocketbooks or their own jobs or their own interests.”
Nearby Wesley Chapel neighbors Tom Kerr and Quinn Ausburn, both former military police, dismissed the GOP party leaders fretting about Trump’s temperament.
“Those are the people we need to get out of Washington D.C.,” Ausburn said. “We’ve got senators and congressmen that have been in Washington 30 years, making 66 percent more than average Americans and they do nothing for us. They only take the money from the special interests.”
“They are more concerned about protecting the Muslims and the illegals,” agreed Kerr.
Trump drew some of strongest applause when he talked of the threat of a terrorist attack and promised to limit the number of immigrants entering the country, both legally and illegally.
“We’re allowing thousands and thousands of people come into our country and we have no idea who they hell they are,” said the mogul.
At another point he mused about arming people in the crowd to guard against mass shooters: “Let the bullets go in the other direction ... BOOM. BOOM. BOOM.”
Trump’s suggested that Democrats seem better at unifying than Republicans, and said some GOP senators up for reelection aren’t endorsing him even though he is polling better in their states.
“The Republican party has to be tough and smart,” he said, warning that he could wind up in the White House even as Republicans lose their majority in the senate.. “If not, I’m going to win, but a lot of other people are not.”
Saturday marked Trump’s third campaign stop in Tampa since February, when he drew at least 10,000 people. He came to the convention center the day before easily winning Florida’s presidential primary on March 15, but the campaign set up a room that could only fit about 1,000 people.
On Saturday, there were no long lines and not much interaction between those there to support Trump and those there to protest him.
Florida Democrats held an anti-Trump news conference but it attracted a small crowd of about a dozen.
Much of that small group were affiliated with the Black Lives Matter movement and later held signs at a nearby street corner and marched around the convention center. Nearby, people hawked Trump T-shirts, flags, pins and “Make America Great Again” hats.
A white school bus with the words “Dump Trump” painted on it drove in circles around downtown Tampa. The drivers yelled out a mix of obscenities and negative comments on Trump and democratic candidate Hillary Clinton.
John McCombs, 52, came to the rally in a navy “Trump 2016” T-shirt. This wasn’t his first rally — he has seen the Republican frontrunner before in Orlando, where he lives. Today, he said, the drive was worth it.
Trump’s “had a rough go of it over the last few days,” he said. He wanted to show his support.
McCombs said he wasn’t surprised there wasn’t a wait to get inside, where he looked forward to be surrounding by people he said “care about this country.”
“I’ve hoped they learned from some of their other events that by having them early in the day some of the bad things can be avoided,” he said.
As the crowd shuffled into the convention center, Peter Chianchiano was there to greet them.
“Thank you for being here,” Chianchiano, 68, told fellow Trump supporters. “Thank you for your vote.”
Clad in camouflage and hoisting the United States flag and a sign that read “Trump our flag is being burned,” the Spring Hill resident said his reasons for supporting Trump were simple.
“He’s stood up and told the truth,” Chianchiano said, adding that he often gets negative feedback on what he called his patriotism and Trump support. “We’re not allowed to hold up our flag anymore?” he asked. “That’s why we need Mr. Trump.”
Inside the convention hall, some people started singing happy birthday to the candidate who turns 70 on Tuesday.
“I feel like I’m 35, that’s the good news,” he said.
Sara DiNatale and Sam Howard contributed to this report. Contact Adam C. Smith at [email protected] Follow @adamsmithtimes.