Florida GOP fights to animate Trump's base without president

PANAMA CITY, Florida (AP) - Nearly 300 Republicans packed shoulder to shoulder in a Holiday Inn conference room in the heart of the Florida Panhandle this week, sweating to see their party's biggest political stars who weren't named President Donald Trump.
With Trump in Washington they sang and cheered as the governor, the self-described "Trumpiest" congresswoman from Florida and the president's eldest son shared anti-democratic conspiracy theories, attacking the media, warning that Joe Biden is "a puppet for radicals on the left." "
Though energized, the crowd was a far cry from the tens of thousands drawn to the president's earlier rallies in that deep red bastion of Trumpism, where the presidential dominant performance four years ago helped make Florida, and therefore whites, a part Save house.
"I would love to see President Trump. Don Jr. is fine," said Rick Scott, a 64-year-old retired construction manager who joined the humble crowd in Panama City Beach on the shores of the Gulf Coast. "This place couldn't get all people hold if the President shows up. "
No question about it, Trump will win the Florida Panhandle this fall. In addition, he needs to increase the score to surpass his 2016 performance when he won some counties by 40 and 50 points to offset the weakness of older voters and suburbanites in other parts of the state. With the election in less than four weeks, that task has become exponentially more difficult as the president is infected with a virus that has killed 210,000 Americans on his watch.
After taking more than a week off to recover, Trump is hoping to return to the Florida campaign early next week. He also plans to call a large crowd in the White House rose garden on Saturday.
With Trump's numbers already falling, his allies are tacitly concerned that the excitement of his base, long viewed as an overwhelming asset, may ease as he struggles to contain several crises, including a coronavirus outbreak streaking the upper reaches of his administration has captured.
"I won't tell you for a second that I'm happy with where the numbers are, what I'm seeing," said Brett Doster, a veteran Republican strategist from Tallahassee, though he does raise questions about Biden's chances in the state as well. "I don't think either side has reason to be happy."
It is often said that the most valuable property in presidential politics is along the Interstate 4 corridor in Florida, which is home to growing neighborhoods of swing voters from Tampa to Orlando to Daytona Beach. Trump will travel to the corridor on Monday to visit Sanford.
But the northwest corner of Florida known as the Panhandle, which culturally has much more in common with its northern neighbor Alabama than the bustling metropolis of Miami, 700 miles south, could be just as important to the president's political destiny.
Biden's campaign has made modest investments here to limit Trump's advantage.
The Democratic presidential candidate barely spends Trump on Pensacola radio waves and ranks him dollar for dollar in the adjacent market in Mobile, Alabama, according to media tracking company Kantar / CMAG.
Samantha Hope Herring, leader of the Walton County's Democratic Party who has been in panhandle politics for years, says she has noticed a marked change in the field in recent months, particularly in the region's large military community, which has been more open to posting to Democratic Lawn signs she can never remember.
"I've never had such requests for signage. It's crazy," she said.
Debbie Wood, Hope Herring's counterpart at the neighboring Republican Party in Bay County, said she noticed the Biden signs. She fears that population losses following the devastation of Hurricane Michael two years ago, combined with an influx of transplants from the north, could easily turn the electorate towards Democrats.
"That scares me," said Wood. "We're blushing, but this year, more than ever, we have to make sure that every vote takes place."
But at least for now, there are limits to how much Trump can help himself.
The President's campaign sent the best assets available to Panama City Beach this week, including Donald Trump Jr., Governor Ron DeSantis, Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fla. And former Fox News personality Kimberly Guilfoyle. The roster was part of "Operation MAGA," a plan devised as part of the President's diagnosis to get the campaign's heaviest players onto key battlefields to ensure voters stay energized while Trump is down .
Gaetz, who said he welcomed being the "trumpiest" member of Congress, told the crowd that he spoke to Trump by phone earlier in the day. The president wasn't interested in talking about his health or anything else in Washington.
"All he asked was, 'How is the panhandle doing?'", Gaetz recalled. "If they can keep it close in the rest of Florida, our people will deliver," he told the president.
Later, the president's son fed the crowd a solid diet of red meat.
Trump Jr. shared the unsubstantiated claim that Biden's son accepted money from an employee of Russian President Vladimir Putin who was tied to a prostitution ring. He falsely suggested that leading Democrats such as former President Barack Obama and 2016 presidential candidate Hillary Clinton would be prosecuted for “spying” Trump. And in front of an almost exclusively white audience, he rejected economic growth under Biden and Obama, the first black president.
"A monkey sitting in the Oval Office doing nothing" could have done the same, Trump Jr. said, using a term that is sometimes derogatory to blacks and viewed as racist. "You don't have to do anything - a pet, anyone, you could just sit there and it would grow on its own."
Few people at the Panama City Beach Holiday Inn appeared to worry about the president's health or their own as the pandemic spread to Florida and the rest of the country. Almost no one in the hall wore masks.
The state reported Friday that more than 15,000 Floridians have been killed by the coronavirus to date.
Diane Vitale, 74, who lives in Panama City Beach, said she was never worried about Trump's infection: “He's strong. He is beyond man. "
She also made a prediction: “COVID will go away on November 4th. It will be gone. They see me? I am 74 years old. I am not wearing a mask. I don't believe in that. "

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