By BRANDON LARRABEE
THE NEWS SERVICE OF FLORIDA
Yesterday Attorney General Pam Bondi became the highest-ranking state official to endorse Donald Trump, the Republican front-runner nationwide and increasingly in Florida, while former President Bill Clinton hit the stump for his wife’s campaign for the Democratic nomination.
Trump and Hillary Clinton are both heavily favored to win Florida, according to the polls, and both plan to hold their Tuesday night victory celebrations in Florida as results from Ohio, Illinois, Missouri and North Carolina also pour in.
Bondi, who had initially backed Jeb Bush for president before the former Florida governor dropped out, praised Trump for his outspoken style.
“People today are looking for leadership, the kind that Mr. Trump offers, that’s unafraid to tell it like it is and will do something about renewing America’s strength and greatness. … We have been friends for years, and I know his family personally. I’ve seen first-hand how he leads, and how he cares deeply about the people of this country,” Bondi said in a statement issued by the Trump campaign.
No other statewide elected official has backed Trump. Gov. Rick Scott has declined to endorse a candidate, though he has said kind things about Trump. Lt. Gov. Carlos Lopez-Cantera, Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater and Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam have joined dozens of state lawmakers in lining up behind Rubio, Florida’s junior senator.
At a rally in Tampa where Bondi’s endorsement was announced, Trump continued to mock Rubio — “little Marco,” as Trump called Rubio even while insisting he would not use the term — for the senator’s lack of attendance at the U.S. Capitol as he runs for president.
Trump said a good showing on Tuesday, when Ohio Gov. John Kasich’s home state also votes, could effectively end the four-man GOP contest, which also includes U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas.
“If we win Florida and we win Ohio, we can go and attack Hillary,” Trump said. “We can stop attacking each other.”
In a video shot by ABC News and distributed by Rubio’s campaign, the senator promised to “shock the country” on Tuesday. Rubio could be forced to leave the presidential race if he loses Florida’s winner-take-all primary and its 99 delegates, nearly a twelfth of the number needed to win the Republican nomination.
“Tomorrow we have a chance to make a powerful statement to the country and that is that the Republican Party is not going to allow itself to be hijacked by fake conservatives and people who go around dividing us against each other,” said Rubio, who has pivoted in recent days from personally savaging Trump to condemning his rival’s strident rhetoric.
In Tallahassee, Bill Clinton visited Florida A&M University in one of three get-out-the-vote rallies that the famously indefatigable campaigner held on behalf of his wife. The former president highlighted Hillary Clinton’s tangible accomplishments as a lawyer, U.S. senator and secretary of state — an implicit shot at her opponent, U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, a self-proclaimed democratic socialist.
“We need a change maker as president, and she is the single best change maker I have ever seen,” Clinton, who spoke for more than half an hour, told the crowd of a couple of hundred.
Standing in front of a basketball scoreboard set with a time of “20:16” and scores of “45” — a reference to the next president — Clinton touched on subjects from Wall Street to health care to reining in the costs of college tuition, something that got the biggest reception from the audience.
But even some of those who turned out seemed tepid about Hillary Clinton. Republicans and some neutral observers have said that lagging Democratic turnout in early primary and caucus states raises questions about the enthusiasm in the Democratic Party after eight years of President Barack Obama.
“I am skeptical, because her platforms and her ideals and the way that she seems to come off, seems to be very reminiscent of the ’90s,” said Chantel Gainous, a Florida A&M student, before the event. “It would be progressive if we were in 1995, when her husband was president.”
Audience members mobbed Clinton after his speech, looking for a photograph or a chance to meet the former president — the kind of admiration that the Clinton campaign hopes will transfer to his wife on Tuesday night and beyond.