ORLANDO, Florida—Donald Trump brought his warmest disposition to the Sunshine State.
It was a strange, atypical approach for a candidate who has predicated his campaign on the notion that America is a disaster, and whose rallies have at times included scenes of violence.
“We’re going to have such love in this country… and such respect,” Trump told his crowd. “Dream big… We are just six days away from the change you’ve been waiting for your entire life.”
Who is this man?
It didn’t sound like the candidate who is famously known for counterpunching, for making every campaign moment about him, and for wildly attacking opponents. He was on message, on script—other than Hillary Clinton, he didn’t mock a single person—not the Republican speaker, not a Hispanic beauty queen, not a disabled person.
As the afternoon sun beat down on him thousands of rally attendees gathered at the Central Florida Fairgrounds, 13 miles northeast of the Happiest Place on Earth—Walt Disney World. His volunteers opened fire with T-shirt cannons as the Backstreet Boys’ “I Want It That Way,” hummed in the background, despite the band’s disapproval.
Trump opened with a genuinely moving homage to his deceased mother and father, who he regretted he could not share this campaign with, but were constantly in his thoughts.
“I know they’re up there watching. I just felt that nice breeze,” Trump said, as a slow wind crept across the stage. Later he complimented the beautiful lakeside view that adjoined the fairgrounds, adding: “Anyone want to go swimming?”
Though his pathway to the White House remains narrow, there is reason for the nominee’s optimism in Florida, where Trump and his fellow Republicans have a narrow lead in early voting. More than 4.4 million Floridians have already cast their ballot, with with nearly 20,000 more Republicans and Democrats taking advantage of the process, according to the state’s Division of Elections.
The Real Clear Politics polling average has Trump up by a hair, with a 0.6 percentage point lead. Two new polls showed Trump and Clinton in a statistical tie: Clinton ahead 50 to 49 percent in the CNN/ORC poll, and up 47 to 45 percent in the Quinnipiac poll.
Instead of threatening lawsuits, Trump’s first policy topic of the afternoon was that he wanted “justice for every child trapped in poverty in the inner cities,” adding, “I want to give back to the country that I love.”
Following the third presidential debate in October, Trump’s body language—lips pursed, shoulders hunched—hinted that he knew he was finished. Now he’s campaigning with renewed vigor, and sounds like he actually believes he can win. Trump has been especially buoyed by the revelation last Friday that the FBI was revisiting its investigation of Hillary Clinton’s private email server—a late October surprise that rocked the race.
“If that hadn’t happened, he would have been less optimistic,” said Daniel Lincoln, an 18-year-old rally attendee who cast his first ever ballot for Trump. Lincoln had attended a Trump event over a week ago, before the FBI fiasco, and was markedly more cheerful.
It also appears that Trump wants to compete with Clinton over her core constituencies, or at least dissuade enough of them from voting for her that it makes a difference in the result.
“Our inner cities are going to come back, and they’re going to come back strong. And the African-American community, and the Hispanic community are really understanding what’s going on, and you see that right now with what’s happening at the polls,” Trump said.
Minorities and women are Clinton’s key voting blocks in the state. The former secretary of state had campaigned in Florida the day before, just an hour’s drive west, and she brought former Miss Universe Alicia Machado to the stage to emphasize the point that Trump was anti-Latino and anti-woman. On Wednesday, Trump responded, with a backdrop of a sea of pink “Women for Trump” and red “Hispanics for Trump” signs.
But outside of his raucous rally, Trump and his running mate Mike Pence appear to be playing different roles—Trump playing the optimist with momentum, while Pence lectures wary Republicans to “come home” to vote for Trump.
“Now is the time for us to reach out to our conservative and Republican friends and say with one voice: ‘It’s time to come home,’” Pence said in Clearwater, Florida, Monday evening. “It’s a message to Republican voters… it’s time to come home to make sure Hillary Clinton is never elected president.”
The argument indicates that the Trump campaign is concerned about low turnout among traditional Republican voters who have been disgusted by elements of Trump’s controversial White House bid. Indeed, for many Republicans in Florida, a vote for Trump can be primarily justified as an anti-Clinton vote or a pro-Pence vote.
“[Trump is] a school yard bully, because of the things I’ve heard him actually say and do on television,” Florida voter Preston Stafford told The Daily Beast. And Stafford would know—he has been a decades-long teacher of junior and senior high school in Lakeland, a town along the critical Florida I-4 corridor, which is rich with independent voters and a key bellwether area for the state.
“What I want to do is to get my friends who are on the fence to think about Pence as a stabilizer, someone Trump will listen to. If they don’t like either of them, just vote for Pence,” Stafford said.
One Republican leader in Pinellas County, another key purple area in the state, said the final argument of the campaign was simple: Trump isn’t Hillary Clinton.
“The parting argument is: If Hillary Clinton is elected president, we’re going to have more of what we’ve had… a massive budget deficit and chaos in our foreign affairs,” the Republican said.
Ultimately, Trump’s own closing argument was to lay the result at the feet of his supporters. He—and they—had worked too hard on this election campaign to lose it, he told the crowd. This rally, and the election, was merely “the end of the beginning,” he added—a “last, glorious surprise” that they would pull on the country’s elites and political prognosticators.
“Get out there. We don’t want to blow it,” Trump admonished his rally-goers Wednesday afternoon. “That I can tell you.”