via Mike Licht, Flickr Creative Commons
With their presidential nominee under a cloud of sexual-assault allegations, Florida Republican leaders gathered Saturday at one end of the critical I-4 corridor for their fundraising "Victory Dinner" before a final push toward the November elections.
But those who came to the Hilton Tampa Downtown Hotel banked on one message to help real-estate mogul Donald Trump win in November after the disclosure of vulgar comments about women and a wave of allegations that he repeatedly groped or kissed women against their will: The alternative is worse.
The GOP has been roiled by the comments since they surfaced a little more than a week ago in a previously unaired video recorded in 2005 by the television show Access Hollywood
. Several Republican elected officials at least temporarily rescinded endorsements of Trump, and most of them condemned his statements.
But Republican Party of Florida Chairman Blaise Ingoglia dismissed the possibility that the developments of the last week could severely damage Trump's candidacy, perhaps fatally.
"I'm not discounting what the women are saying, but you have to ask yourself why has all this stuff just happened to come out now toward the last month of a campaign," he said. "Obviously, there's a lot of political motivation behind that. ... People want change. I don't think some unfounded accusations are going to sway anybody's opinion right now."
Hillsborough County Republican Chairwoman Deborah Tamargo said Floridians were focused on other things.
"What the voters are telling me is they're more interested in the safety of their families and the economic opportunity than they are on a guy that maybe said some crude things a decade ago," she said.
Peter Feaman, who represents Florida on the Republican National Committee, said there was no real comparison between Trump's comments and what the GOP has portrayed as a culture of corruption at the State Department under Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton.
"If you put it in balance between those words and everything that Hillary Clinton has done ... I'd argue to the jury, it's not even close," Feaman said.
Speaking at the dinner, Trump's running mate Mike Pence referred to the assault allegations only in a roundabout way, but zeroed in on an argument that resonates with social conservatives: The next president could appoint several Supreme Court justices.
"You need to remember that the next president will serve four years, but will likely set the course and the direction of the Supreme Court of the United States for the next 40 years," said Pence, the governor of Indiana. "And we better think long and hard about that."
Republicans tried to dispel the idea of a party in crisis.
When a reporter entered a meeting of the party's state committeemen and committeewomen Friday evening, the members showed their support for Trump by chanting his name. "Donald!" one side of the room yelled. "Trump!" the other responded.
Christian Ziegler, the committeeman from Sarasota County who led the meeting, said afterward that he didn't expect Republicans to lose much more support than usual this year.
"Every election, there's always a percentage from each party that do not support their nominee," Ziegler said. "I think what we're seeing now is that the media is pouring gas on the Republican side to really try and get that story up to really even the race and to tilt the race towards Hillary Clinton."
Ziegler said any lost support would be offset by new voters drawn to the party by Trump. And he said Democrats were struggling with their own divisions after Clinton's bruising primary campaign against U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, a self-proclaimed democratic socialist who excited young voters.
Whatever the dynamics of the race, there is no dispute that Florida is vital to Trump's hopes of cobbling together the 270 electoral votes to claim the White House on Nov. 8.
"We can't win if we don't win Florida. ... It's up to us to win (the race)," said Deborah Cox-Roush, a longtime Republican figure in Florida and Trump's grassroots director in the state.
But the comments by Trump and allegations of sexual misconduct continued to crop up. Christine Quinn, an underdog Republican candidate running against Democratic Congresswoman Kathy Castor for a Tampa-area U.S. House seat, cast doubts on some of the allegations against Trump. Quinn particularly questioned the accusation made by Jessica Leeds, who said Trump groped her 36 years ago on an airplane.
Trump has denied the allegations of every woman who has accused him of assault, and many of his supporters have argued, as Quinn did, that airplanes did not have armrests that lifted up at the time. That would seem to undermine a detail of Leeds' story as she recounted it to The New York Times
"I guarantee you, she's thinking, Donald Trump is sitting next to me, and he's a billionaire, or a millionaire in that time, and she was probably coming onto him so damn strong, and he was probably pushing her away," Quinn told a gathering of county chairs.
Democrats were attempting to continue tying Republican candidates to Trump. The U.S. Senate campaign of Democratic Congressman Patrick Murphy slammed Sen. Marco Rubio, the Republican incumbent, for planning to appear Saturday night with Pence.
"Donald Trump is a serial sexual predator and Marco Rubio is actively trying to make him our next president," said Murphy spokeswoman Galia Slayen in a statement issued Saturday. "Floridians deserve answers as to why Rubio believes this is acceptable behavior for our country's next leader."
Rubio, who ran for president against Trump, has endorsed Trump but noted in the wake of the Access Hollywood
tape that he has "consistently rejected his offensive rhetoric and behavior."
In a speech that lasted more than 30 minutes Saturday night, Rubio touted his own accomplishments and slammed Murphy for a lack of concrete achievements.
"I am running against someone who has actually been in Congress for four years, but you probably don't it," Rubio said. "Most people don't know, because he's not done anything in four years."
Rubio did not mention Trump during his remarks.