ESTERO — James Fahnestock stood in the blazing sun for more than five hours Wednesday while awaiting his first opportunity to see his hero, President Donald Trump, live and in person.
Fahnestock’s red “Make America Great Again” cap did little to protect him from the heat, but the sweltering temperatures didn’t dampen the 36-year-old Naples resident’s enthusiasm for the man who’s not on the ballot in Florida but who, indirectly, is at the top of the ticket.
“I wish I could take a bullet for him,” Fahnestock told The News Service of Florida before entering the Hertz Arena along with thousands of other Trump fans who traveled from throughout the state to Lee County to hear Trump speak in the first of two Sunshine State rallies in the days leading up to Tuesday’s elections.
“He’s the greatest thing that’s happened for America in a long time,” Fahnestock, who sells real estate, said of the president.
For Fahnestock and more than 8,000 others Wednesday night, Trump delivered, as he urged Floridians to throw their support behind Republican gubernatorial candidate Ron DeSantis and Gov. Rick Scott, who is trying to unseat Democratic U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson.
The Nov. 6 election is “one of the most important … in our entire lives, although, I will say, not as important as 2016,” he joked.
The president boasted of a litany of successes, including lowering taxes, fighting illegal immigration and taking “unprecedented action” against terrorist regimes, such as Iran.
But, pointing to a fenced-off area in the center of the arena, Trump blamed the press for failing to properly convey his achievements to the public.
“The media doesn’t want you to hear your story. It’s not my story. It’s your story,” he said, eliciting loud boos from an audience clad almost exclusively in red, white and blue.
“And that’s why 33 percent of the people in this country believe the fake news is, in fact, and, I hate to say this, in fact the enemy of the people,” Trump said. “The left-wing media doesn’t want to solve problems. They want to stoke resentment. It has to stop.”
Trump’s appearances Wednesday in Estero and Saturday in Pensacola are part of a last-minute push by the president as he visits Republican strongholds to boost enthusiasm for GOP candidates such as DeSantis and Scott, who took turns joining the president on the Hertz Arena stage.
“Under Republican leadership, America is booming, and America is thriving, and America is winning because we are finally putting America first,” Trump said.
Trump’s early backing helped DeSantis, a former congressman who quit his Washington post to focus on the gubernatorial race, win the Aug. 28 Republican primary over state Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam. The president’s rally Wednesday came as he ramped up criticism of DeSantis’ Democratic rival, Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum.
An FBI inquiry into Tallahassee government — which Gillum maintains he is not the subject of — has become a cornerstone of DeSantis’ campaign, prompting Trump to call the Tallahassee mayor a “stone-cold thief” who should drop out of the governor’s race.
Wednesday evening, he continued his attacks against Gillum, calling him a “radical socialist” who “wants to turn Florida into a Venezuela” and is “too extreme for the people of Florida.”
“Tallahassee is among the most corrupt cities anywhere in the United States,” Trump said. “Is this really what you want?”
Earlier in the day, U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders stumped for Gillum on college campuses in Tampa and Orlando, and former President Barack Obama is scheduled to appear with the Democratic nominee on Friday in Miami.
DeSantis slammed Gillum as a corrupt politician who is the head of a crime-ridden city, a familiar campaign trope, and vowed to work with the Trump administration “to make sure we get the resources we need to clean our water, and clean our rivers, and protect our way of life here in the state of Florida.”
“I’m the only candidate that ain’t gonna raise your taxes here in Florida,” DeSantis said. “And I’m the only guy who can credibly say I’m not under investigation for corruption by the FBI.”
As governor, DeSantis pledged to “protect our good economy, and that means we cannot raise taxes.”
“I believe Florida can boom like never before,” he said.
While praising DeSantis and Scott, Trump directed some of his harshest criticism for Democrats’ immigration policies, which he said amount to “open borders” and allowing “caravan after caravan into our country.”
He also encouraged voters to support Republicans “if you want low taxes and low crime.”
“This election is truly a choice between results and resistance,” Trump warned. “This is truly an election between greatness and gridlock.”
Trump also went on the attack against Nelson. The president, who lives part-time in Palm Beach, pointed out that he owns properties in Miami and elsewhere in Florida and is very familiar with the Sunshine State.
“I’m here a lot. I never see Sen. Nelson, ever, until six months before the election,” Trump said, calling Nelson and Gillum “a disaster.”
Wednesday’s appearance with Trump was the first time Scott, who was head of a pro-Trump super PAC during the president’s campaign in 2016, has joined the president onstage for a political event this year. The two men toured parts of the Panhandle after Hurricane Michael, which made landfall Oct. 10 as a Category 4 hurricane in Mexico Beach,
Scott lauded Trump for providing federal resources to Florida following Michael and last year’s Hurricane Irma.
“There is absolutely nothing that I’ve asked from Donald Trump with regards to these two hurricanes that he hasn’t come through,” Scott said.
And the governor vowed to support the president’s agenda of protecting the nation’s borders, if sent to Washington in Nelson’s place.
“President Trump and Rick Scott, we want a secure border. We want you to be safe. The choice is clear,” Scott said. “Vote, vote, vote.”
Fahnestock’s devotion to the president was mirrored by the other fans, who bopped to the sounds of country-and-western music beneath a giant American flag while waiting for Trump to take the stage.
“I love Donald Trump and everything that he stands for, does,” gushed 63-year-old Debbie Robinson, who traveled across the state from Jupiter to attend Wednesday’s rally. “I wish he could be king.”