Trump Campaigns for Ron DeSantis (and Himself) in Florida

President Donald Trump swung through Tampa on Tuesday to boast his administration's job creation efforts and to put his thumb on the scale in the state's hotly contested Republican primary for governor.
by | August 1, 2018 AT 10:00 AM

By Steve Contorno

President Donald Trump swung through Tampa on Tuesday to boast his administration's job creation efforts and to put his thumb on the scale in the state's hotly contested Republican primary for governor.

In his first public visit to Tampa since taking office, Trump encouraged a crowd of about 10,000 at the Florida State Fairgrounds to back U.S. Rep. Ron DeSantis for governor.

Trump called DeSantis a "tough and brilliant cookie" who is "very smart."

"I appreciate your support, Mr. President," DeSantis said. "But I appreciate more the leadership you're showing for our great country."

Trump also came out swinging against U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, a Democrat who the president said "puts criminal aliens before American citizens" and is controlled by Democratic leadership. Nelson faces a challenge from Gov. Rick Scott, who was not in attendance.

He then went into his signature off-the-cuff, fact-challenged, campaign-style stump, where he claimed widespread support from minorities, record job numbers and that America would soon be the world's leader "in energy."

Trump supporters decked out in American flag gear and Trump-branded apparel began lining up at the Fairground gates before sunrise, despite the July humidity and ever-present threat of thunderstorms. By mid-afternoon, hundreds were waiting to get in, verbally clashing at times with groups of protesters also assembling nearby.

Once inside, the crowd was abuzz with optimism about Trump's presidency. As speakers took the stage to talk about how Trump is a "fighter" who faces tough "opposition," the crowd roared in approval.

Air Force One touched down in Tampa at around 5:30 p.m. Supporters, including Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi, greeted Trump as he walked off the tarmac at Tampa International Airport with Scott and Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos. U.S. Reps. Gus Bilirakis and Matt Gaetz, two Florida Republicans running for re-election, joined him as well.

The motorcade made its way through downtown Tampa to Tampa Bay Technical High School. There, Scott and Trump's daughter Ivanka Trump addressed the high school audience. U.S. Rep. Ted Yoho, another Florida Republican, was in attendance as well.

Ivanka Trump introduced her father as someone "who keeps his promise and who will always deliver for America's workers."

Later, Trump ceremonially signed one of the first major education initiatives of his administration _ the Strengthening Career and Technical Education for the 21st Century Act. The bipartisan legislation reauthorizes $1.2 billion for local technical education and shifted decisions on how best to spend the money to states and local community colleges.

Trump said the bill gives students better access to jobs in this "incredibly booming economy."

"There's never been a better time to learn a trade in this country," Trump said.

Students organized a small protest outside the school ahead of Trump's visit. Larger protests awaited Trump at the fairgrounds.

"America is never, I mean never, a land for hate," Plant High School student Sam Sharf said while leading protesters up Harney Road toward the Tampa Bay Tech.

Oddly enough, the very issue Trump came to town to promote _ vocational training _ is a top priority for Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam, the other Republican running for governor.

Putnam, a former congressman from Bartow, was long considered the favorite to represent the GOP in November, but Trump's endorsement of DeSantis on June 22 turned the race on its head.

Putnam has tried to convince voters he'd be an ally for Trump in Tallahassee and has criticized DeSantis for bringing few ideas for Florida to the race. But the most recent polls show DeSantis leading Putnam by 6 percentage points and as many as 12, a total reversal from June.

As Tampa prepped for Trumpmania, Putnam, who turned 44 on Tuesday, held a campaign event with veterans in the Villages.

"I'm confident that there's an awful lot of Trump-Putnam voters out there who want a governor who actually understands the challenges facing them and puts them first," Putnam said.

Meanwhile, Scott ducked out before the rally at the fairgrounds for a fundraiser. The two-term Republican governor has carefully navigated his relationship with Trump as he looks toward a general election against Nelson.

Trump left Washington, D.C., just as the first day of the trial for his former campaign manager, Paul Manafort, wrapped up in nearby Alexandria, Va. Prosecutors allege that Manafort failed to pay taxes on millions of dollars earned working for a Ukrainian political party with deep ties to Russia.

Manafort is the first official in Trump's circle to head to court in a case brought to prosecutors by Robert Mueller, who is investigating Russian interference in the 2016 election.

The investigation has so far led to charges against more than 30 people and companies. Trump has called Mueller's probe "a witch hunt."

Hours before takeoff, Trump on Twitter provided a glimpse into the issues on his mind as he headed to Tampa.

He tweeted a handful of endorsements, said he is "looking into" 3-D plastic guns and once again raised the prospect of a government shutdown.

"I don't care what the political ramifications are, our immigration laws and border security have been a complete and total disaster for decades," Trump tweeted, "and there is no way that the Democrats will allow it to be fixed without a Government Shutdown."

Republicans were quick to dismiss the idea when Trump first suggested a shutdown over the weekend. Congress has until Sept. 30 to fund the government, and a shutdown could delay the confirmation of Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court. It would also come in the middle of a midterm election in which Republicans are trying to hold onto the House of Representatives and the Senate.

Tampa has a storied history of hosting presidents. President John F. Kennedy was the first when he visited on Nov. 18, 1963 _ four days before he was fatally shot in Dallas. Presidents Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama have made memorable appearances here as well.

Tuesday marked Trump's 36th rally in the Sunshine State. The real estate mogul and part-time Florida resident was a frequent visitor to the Tampa Bay during the 2016 presidential campaign.

Trump defeated Democrat Hillary Clinton in Florida en route to his election night victory _ which he was sure to remind Tampanians.

"I love Florida, I had a great victory in Florida," Trump said at Tampa Bay Tech.

He added: "We're more popular than ever with evangelicals."

(Tampa Bay Times staff writers Bre Bradham, Tim Fanning, Emily L. Mahoney, Tony Marrero, Marlene Sokol, Langston Taylor and Kirby Wilson contributed to this story.)

(c)2018 Tampa Bay Times (St. Petersburg, Fla.)