PANAMA CITY, Fla. – Nearly 300 Republicans packed shoulder-to-shoulder maskless and sweating inside a Holiday Inn conference room this week in the heart of the Florida Panhandle to see their party's biggest political stars not named President Donald Trump.
With Trump grounded in Washington, they chanted and cheered as the governor, the self-described “Trumpiest” Florida congressman and the president's eldest son shared anti-Democratic conspiracy theories, attacked the media and warned that Joe Biden “is a puppet for the radical left.”
While energetic, the crowd was a far cry from the tens of thousands drawn to the president's past rallies in this deep-red bastion of Trumpism, where the president's dominant performance four years ago helped deliver Florida, and with it, the White House.
“I’d like to see President Trump. Don Jr. is fine,” said Rick Scott, a 64-year-old retired construction manager who joined the modest crowd in Panama City Beach on the shores of the Gulf Coast. “This place couldn’t hold all the people if the president showed up."
There is no question Trump will win the Florida Panhandle this fall. But more than that, he needs to run up the score to exceed his 2016 performance, when he won some counties by 40 and 50 points, to make up for weakness among older voters and suburbanites elsewhere in the state. With the election less than four weeks away, that task has become exponentially more difficult with the president infected by a virus that has killed 210,000 Americans on his watch.
After being sidelined for more than a week to recover, Trump hopes to return to the campaign trail early next week in Florida. He's also planning to convene a large crowd on Saturday at the White House Rose Garden.
With Trump’s numbers already sagging, his allies are quietly concerned that his base’s level of excitement, long considered an overwhelming asset, may be slipping as he struggles to contain multiple crises, including a coronavirus outbreak that has swept through the upper reaches of his administration.
“I’m not about to tell you for a second that I’m happy about where the numbers are, from what I’m seeing,” said Brett Doster, a veteran Republican strategist based in Tallahassee, though he raised questions about Biden's chances in the state as well. “Neither side, I think, has reason to be happy.”
It’s often said that the most valuable real estate in presidential politics is along Florida's Interstate 4 corridor that features growing neighborhoods of swing voters from Tampa through Orlando and 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 (1,125 kilometers) to the south, may be every bit as important to the president’s political fate.
Sensing opportunity, Biden's campaign has made modest investments here to help limit Trump's advantage.
The Democratic presidential nominee is narrowly outspending Trump on Pensacola airwaves and matching him dollar for dollar in the adjacent Mobile, Alabama, market, according to the media tracking firm Kantar/CMAG.
Samantha Hope Herring, who chairs the Walton County Democratic Party and has worked in Panhandle politics for years, says she's noticed a definite change on the ground in recent months, particularly among the area's large military community, which has been more open to posting pro-Democrat lawn signs than she can ever remember.
“I’ve never had requests like this for signage. It’s insane,” she said.
Hope Herring's counterpart at the neighboring Bay County Republican Party, Debbie Wood, said she's noticed the Biden signs. She's worried that population losses that followed Hurricane Michael's devastation two years ago, combined with an influx of Northern transplants, may be slightly skewing the electorate toward Democrats.
“That scares me,” Wood said. “We’re going to go red, but this year more than ever, we need to make sure every vote is in.”
But at least for now, there are limits as to how much Trump himself can help.
The president's campaign dispatched its best available assets to Panama City Beach this week, including Donald Trump Jr., Gov. Ron DeSantis, Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fla., and former Fox News personality Kimberly Guilfoyle. The lineup was part of “Operation MAGA," a plan hatched in the wake of the president's diagnosis to leverage the campaign's heaviest hitters to key battlegrounds to ensure voters stay energized while Trump is grounded.
Gaetz, who said he embraced being the “Trumpiest” member of Congress, told the crowd he spoke to Trump earlier in the day by phone. The president wasn't interested in discussing his health or anything else happening in Washington.
“All he asked was, 'How's the Panhandle?'” Gaetz recalled. “If they can keep it even close in the rest of Florida, our people will deliver,” he said he told the president.
Later, the president's son fed the crowd a steady diet of red meat.
Trump Jr. shared the baseless claim that Biden's son accepted money from an associate of Russian President Vladimir Putin tied to a prostitution ring. He falsely suggested that leading Democrats like former President Barack Obama and 2016 presidential nominee Hillary Clinton faced prosecution for “spying” on Trump. And facing an almost all-white audience, he dismissed 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 applied to Black people in a derogatory way 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 in the crowd at the Panama City Beach Holiday Inn seemed to be concerned about the president's health or their own as the pandemic spread across Florida and the rest of the country. Almost no one in the indoor venue wore masks.
The state reported on Friday that more than 15,000 Floridians have been killed by the coronavirus so far.
Diane Vitale, 74, who lives in Panama City Beach, said she never worried about Trump's infection: “He's strong. He's beyond human."
She also made a prediction: “COVID will disappear on Nov. 4. It'll be gone. You see me? I'm 74 years old. I'm not wearing a mask. I don't believe in any of that.”