TAMPA — The sun broke the horizon shortly before 7:40 a.m. Thursday and gave way to an overcast morning, one of five left before a presidential election that promises to change everything.
There are 3.8 million square miles of United States under that sky. The two candidates running for president spent a sweltering afternoon holding rallies at Tampa locations 10 miles apart.
The Democratic challenger, former Vice President Joe Biden scheduled his visit Monday. The incumbent president, Republican Donald Trump, announced his trip Wednesday.
The day was made for any remaining undecided voters in Florida and the country to see side-by-side images. Trump displayed the energy of his crowds against Biden’s more low-key drive-in event. Biden warned of the ongoing public health crisis while Trump presided over a rally crammed with maskless attendees shouting their support.
The Tampa Bay Times deployed reporters and photographers to capture the collision of two political worlds. Here is what unfolded.
8:21 a.m.: The familiar sights of a Trump rally revealed themselves outside Raymond James Stadium. Trump has visited Florida 16 times this year and his supporters are practiced in rituals. Cars filled the parking lot of Hillsborough Community College. Early arrivals braced for a marathon against Florida’s persistent October heat. A vendor under a tent hawked T-shirts and MAGA hats.
This was all new to Laura Schaller. She came to see Trump for the first time. “I just feel so strongly about him that I couldn’t pass this up,” she said.
Cars honked. Police biked by. People clapped. A woman shouted: “Back the Blue.”
8:44 a.m.: Trump was awake at his resort in Doral. This was clear, because he was tweeting. He sent out two videos (one of him speaking at the White House, one of unknown origins purportedly of a Black supporter) and a link to join “Trump’s Army” as a poll watcher.
In Tampa, University of South Florida student Noah Freilich reflected on Tampa hosting both candidates.
“This county is obviously up for grabs,” he said.
Hillsborough County was once a swing county in a swing state, but it has trended blue in recent elections. Trump would like to close that gap. Biden needs to widen it to offset support he has lost in the Latino community elsewhere.
9:09 a.m.: A car passed a line of Trump supporters along West Tampa Bay Boulevard blasting a song with the lyrics: “F*** Donald Trump.”
10:07 a.m.: Trump’s rally was held in a parking lot on the north side of Raymond James Stadium that’s nearby an early voting location.
Ahead of Trump’s arrival, the Hillsborough Supervisor Elections Office acknowledged the setup was not illegal. Trump’s rally, spokeswoman Gerri Kramer said, was sufficiently 150 feet away from the polling site, though she conceded it might slow traffic. Maybe try one of the 25 other county sites, she suggested.
The polls were quiet — six people came and went over a half hour, including Debbie Fuentes, 59, and Margarita Medina, 64. They live close to the stadium, so traffic wasn’t an issue for them.
“We don’t vote for the person,” Fuentes said. Instead, the two vote according to their beliefs, she said. Those beliefs include opposition to abortion and marriage equality. Two votes for Trump.
10:19 a.m.: Biden took off from Delaware toward Fort Lauderdale, his first Florida stop. His campaign informed the press: “Vice President Biden underwent PCR testing for COVID-19 last night and COVID-19 was not detected.”
10:49 a.m.: Back-to-back Trump ads that aired on enormous video boards flanking the stage interrupted a block of Elton John songs. The first ad claimed Biden would destroy suburbs. The second hit Biden on law enforcement.
Trump spent $53 million on television advertising in Florida through mid-October. According to a New York Times analysis, about 60 percent of his ads are full-on attacks of his opponent. Biden, meanwhile, aired $74 million in commercials here and about 7 percent were negative.
11:40 a.m.: Across the street from Raymond James Stadium sat Robert Matthews, 61, of Tampa, in a red chair he carried from his house. Security wouldn’t let him in with the chair. So, he posted up under some trees, with water, a banana and three free tacos from Taco Bell he got as part of a World Series promotion.
“I was thrilled to death that (Trump) was coming into my neighborhood, but it’s ridiculous to have people stand in the middle of the day in the Florida sun,” he said. “It’s not like I have a rocket launcher in this chair.”
12:10 p.m.: Joe Gruters, a state senator and chairman of the Republican Party of Florida, kicked off Trump’s rally with a message: Go vote. “If you are a Hillsborough County resident, you can walk right across the way here and cast your vote right now,” he said.
12:32 p.m.: Wheels up on Air Force One as Trump left Miami for Tampa. A half hour later, Biden landed at Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport.
1 p.m.: Gov. Ron DeSantis followed local down-ballot candidates like U.S. Rep. Gus Bilirakis and congressional candidates Scott Franklin and Anna Paulina Luna to warm up the crowd. But it was hot enough; DeSantis was interrupted twice to direct medical personnel to provide assistance for heat exhaustion.
Thursday’s temperature peaked at 86 degrees, hitting the high as Trump took the stage. Firefighters shot a flume of water straight into the air at the back of the rally, enveloping much of the venue in a refreshing mist.
1:53 p.m.: The Village People’s Macho Man, signaled Trump’s arrival. Necks craned to get a look at the motorcade. First Lady Melania Trump started with a rare address: “Under my husband’s leadership, our nation is respected again. ... "
Meanwhile, Nila Benito, 59, and Karen Clay, 67, their hair dyed blue, pulled into the Florida State Fairgrounds in a burnt orange Mini Cooper. They spent the next two hours decorating it with Biden signs. “People with disabilities for Joe,” one says.
Benito has two adult children with autism. She gets angry when people say Biden hasn’t done anything in 47 years. “I’ll tell you what he’s done,” she said, before rattling off a list of legislation Biden sponsored that advanced people with disabilities.
2:07 p.m.: Trump stood behind the lectern. “That was a little bit of a surprise,” he said of his wife taking the stage.
“I’m thrilled to be here in my, our, home state of Florida,” he said to roars.
Trump quickly touted Thursday’s news that the economy in the third quarter grew at a record rate, though the nation’s economic output still lags pre-pandemic levels. He told the crowd, falsely, that a vaccine is coming in “a few weeks.” He said the pandemic, now spreading quickly in many states, is fading.
“It’s rounding the turn," Trump said.
Biden’s plan, Trump said, “is to deliver punishing lockdowns.” Trump has said he will not lock down the country.
By 3:15 p.m., the crowd had begun to shrink under the punishing heat. Paramedics were in frequent need.
3:55 p.m.: Air Force One departed Tampa International Airport with Trump onboard.
4:08 p.m.: John González normally votes on Election Day. But he decided to vote at Raymond James Stadium after the Trump rally because of its convenience.
Wearing a 2020 Trump mask, several hats and a Trump pin, the Tampa resident cast his vote to re-elect the 45th president. He joined 19,151 other Hillsborough County residents who voted early Thursday.
Even though some Democrats say they don’t support socialism, González is skeptical. He’s of Cuban heritage and his background has shaped his views on the issue.
“Government is never the answer,” he said.
4:15 p.m.: The Fairgrounds parking lot was full of cars, meticulously spaced out. Organizers expected almost 300. Sign-ups and invites were limited. The vehicles faced an electronic screen inviting them to tune their radios to 87.9 FM or 107.7 FM.
Masked drivers and their passengers timidly ventured out for distanced hellos with other supporters. Biden flags whipped in the wind along the aisle of cars.
Nadine Lima, a Hillsborough Community College teacher, stood near her car, waiting for text messages about her brother-in-law. He was in a Massachusetts Intensive Care Unit with coronavirus, and has been for weeks. To her, the president’s response to the pandemic is disqualifying. She couldn’t understand the thousands of people rallying across town.
Nearly 17,000 people have died from COVID-19 in Florida.
“It feels like we’re in science fiction,” Lima said.
5:16 p.m.: Local Democrats gathered around a stage, bumping elbows and exchanging pleasantries, including Tampa Mayor Jane Castor, St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman, U.S. Rep. Charlie Crist and former U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson. Shortly, after Castor took the stage, which awkwardly faced a camera and not the cars. She turned toward them anyway.
“Honk if you are voting for Joe Biden," she began. “Now, give you me a honk if you’ve already voted.” The beeps are louder and longer.
In the distance, a dark cloud drifted toward the fairgrounds.
5:50 p.m.: After attending the Trump rally, Michael Smith and Jim Moss were curious as to how Biden’s would compare. So in a blue pickup flying a pair of large Trump flags, they headed to the fairgrounds. They were turned away at the gate. But Smith said he wasn’t impressed.
“There was a lot more at the Trump rally,” he said.
Minutes later, Bruce Da Silva, 24, was turned away after a long journey to Tampa to vote for Biden. Da Silva lives in Washington, D.C., but made the 14-hour drive to Florida because he didn’t think his mail-in ballot would arrive on time.
As he and a friend paused outside the fairgrounds, the nearby group of Trump supporters grew larger and louder. Da Silva gestured to them.
“This is democracy, right?”
6:20 p.m.: Biden landed in Tampa.
6:30 p.m.: Marena Hernandez, 54, and her daughter, 30-year-old Jennifer Fuentes, couldn’t get in but wanted to hang out and show support. Biden hadn’t been Fuentes' first pick — she liked Bernie Sanders — but anything, to her, was better than Trump.
Hernandez was most concerned about Trump’s relationship with Cuba, she said in Spanish, with her daughter translating. She believed the past few years had been a step back. Many of their Cuban family members and friends in Miami support Trump, Fuentes said.
“I think a lot of it comes from fear,” she said. “All they hear is ‘socialist,’ so they freak out. They don’t understand how it’s different from what it is in Cuba.”
6:39 p.m.: Sen. Janet Cruz grabbed the mic to warm up the crowd, but not before scolding them. “You’re too damn close to each other. Spread out!” Later, U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor acknowledged the rally held west of them. People booed.
“Don’t boo," Castor said. "We don’t agonize about it. We organize.”
7:12 p.m.: The sun had set and the dark settled in when Biden stepped out in front of a large “Florida Vote” poster. He looked out at the rows of cars and shouted: “You guys look like you’re so far away, you may be in Delaware.”
Biden unleashed on Trump for his reportedly low tax bill and for not acknowledging Black Lives Matter. Mostly, he criticized the president’s response to the pandemic, recounting for supporters how Trump’s chief of staff recently said the administration had stopped trying to control the virus.
He called Trump’s rally earlier in the day a “super-spreader” event. “They’re spreading more than coronavirus. They’re spreading division.”
7:28 p.m.: A steady rain began to fall on the fairgrounds. Biden tried to speed through his speech as the rain soaked his blue blazer. But the storm cloud ripped open and Biden barely finished yelling his website into the microphone before he sprinted off the stage to escape a patented Tampa evening storm.
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