PENSACOLA, Fla. — President TrumpDonald John TrumpCurbelo explains reason he forgave man who tweeted death threat Obama accuses Trump of ‘political stunt’ on border politics Voter registration in California reaches all-time high before midterms MORE alleged Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum, the Democrat bidding to become the first black governor of Florida, is “not equipped” for the job at a boisterous rally Saturday evening.
“It’s not for him,” Trump said, without elaborating further. Earlier in his speech, he had dismissed Gillum as a “radical socialist.”
The remarks about Gillum ignited instant social media criticism. They are sure to intensify the debate about Trump’s rhetoric as he campaigns hard for Republicans in the final days before Tuesday’s midterm elections.
Accusations of racial animus have new urgency — particularly since, campaigning in the adjacent state of Georgia on Thursday, the president had called Stacey Abrams “not qualified” to become governor of the Peach State.
Abrams, a Democrat, would be the first black female governor in the nation’s history, if elected.
But the “not equipped” jab at Gillum was not among Trump’s biggest applause lines of the night in this Gulf Coast city.
The crowd of several thousand — assembled in an aircraft hangar beside which Air Force One landed dramatically, silhouetted against the evening sky — reacted euphorically to strident comments about immigration, law and order and the NFL.
A defense of Supreme Court Justice Brett KavanaughBrett Michael KavanaughElection Countdown: Four days out | Early voting exceeds 2014 numbers in many states | Vulnerable Dems throw their party under the bus | Toss-ups to determine Senate control | 10 House GOP seats most likely to flip | Obama campaigns to preserve his legacy A voter guide for the 100 million who are not planning to vote Kavanaugh to skip traditional walk down Supreme Court steps due to security concerns MORE and a lengthy denigration of his accusers was also well-received — more evidence, perhaps, that the controversy over Kavanaugh’s confirmation has energized conservatives as much as liberals.
Trump contended that the caravan of migrants that began in Central America was able to break through Mexico’s defenses and pledged that it would not do so in the United States.
Huge cheers met his pledge to send troops to the border in response to the caravan.
Chants of “USA! USA!” broke out when Trump said that his administration was “standing up for our great national anthem” — a reference to his long-standing opposition to NFL players who take a knee to protest racial injustice.
Trump’s tone left no doubt that he is putting all his chips on the base-first strategy he believes got him elected in 2016.
One big question is whether that approach will work for GOP candidates when Trump himself is not on the ballot. Trump’s predecessor and nemesis, President Obama, struggled to transfer his personal popularity to his party’s candidates in midterm elections during his tenure.
Trump, who is in the middle of a final sprint that encompasses 11 events in the campaign’s final six days, repeatedly referenced Ron DeSantisRonald Dion DeSantisGillum leaves campaign trail in wake of Tallahassee shooting Do Florida voters want socialism? Gillum on Trump calling him a thief: ‘If I’m stealing anything, it’s hearts and minds’ MORE and Rick Scott, the Republican candidates in Florida for governor and Senate respectively.
Trump offered each a few minutes at the microphone during his speech, extending his time on stage to about 75 minutes.
Scott, the incumbent governor, has at times seemed ambivalent about Trump. At the rally, he mostly focused on practical issues. Some people appeared to leave during his remarks.
In a nod to sports fans in the Sunshine State, former Florida State University football head coach, Bobby Bowden was also brought up to make remarks. And another sporting celebrity was present: former heavyweight boxing champion Evander Holyfield.
Holyfield did not speak but Trump lavished praise on him, including for having “made people suffer” in the ring and, idiosyncratically, for his purported lack of body fat.
“Zero — zero! — body fat, I can tell you!” Trump enthused.
Florida has long been a bellwether state and its two marquee races could be decided by razor-thin margins.
Scott is trying to oust incumbent Democratic Sen. Bill NelsonClarence (Bill) William NelsonObama met with screaming fans at taco shop in Florida Protestor interrupts Obama, who asks: Why are folks who won the last election ‘so mad all the time?’ The Hill’s Morning Report — Presented by PhRMA — Congress faces crush of November deadlines MORE. Nelson, a former astronaut running for his fourth term, was ahead by just 1.4 percentage points in the RealClearPolitics (RCP) polling average as of Saturday afternoon.
Trump said that Scott was “running against someone who is falling asleep.” Nelson is 76, 11 years older than Scott.
In the governor’s race, Gillum is a favorite of his party’s progressive base, while DeSantis, a former congressman, won the GOP primary in part by emphasizing his enthusiasm for Trump — including one TV commercial which showed him teaching his toddler daughter to “build the wall” using children’s building blocks.
Gillum is up by 2.6 points in the RCP average. He is also a modest favorite according to data and prediction site FiveThirtyEight, which gives him a 76 percent chance of prevailing.
With the contests so close, turnout will be critical. Trump at one stage demanded a show of hands as to how many people had not already voted, and urged them to do so.
The rally, located in the conservative panhandle of the state, included plenty of the president’s true believers.
Paula St. Pierre, who described herself as a “military wife of 25 years,” attended the rally with her sister. Wearing a Stars & Stripes head bandana, she said of Trump that “I believe everything he says,” and added she had felt “embarrassed” by Obama’s time in the White House.
“I love that [Trump] fights for our flag,” she said.
Nick Harlow, a 64-year-old writer, said he believed Trump to be “one of the few politicians who has really kept his promises. And he is someone who is not afraid to say what people are thinking.”
Harlow highlighted illegal immigration, in particular, as proof of this trait.
At times, Trump’s remarks here resembled a greatest hits performance as he hit out at the media, jabbed “Cryin’ Chuck SchumerCharles (Chuck) Ellis SchumerMcSally accuses Arizona media of ‘protecting’ Dem opponent Sinema Scarborough tears into GOP candidates promising protections for pre-existing conditions: ‘They’re all lying’ Manchin wrestles with progressive backlash in West Virginia MORE” and made sarcastic reference to “legendary genius Maxine WatersMaxine Moore WatersOvernight Defense: Trump to reimpose Iran deal sanctions | Touts move with ‘Game of Thrones’ meme | Eight nations to get waivers for Iranian oil | Sanctions lifted on Turkish officials after pastor’s release The Hill’s Morning Report — Presented by PhRMA — Congress faces crush of November deadlines Trump will not renew Obama-era program to fight domestic terrorism: report MORE.”
Tuesday will give the clearest evidence yet of whether, and with whom, those rhetorical tunes still resonate.