HIALEAH, Fla. — Former President Donald Trump's debate counterprogramming tour continued Wednesday in South Florida before a friendly crowd about a half-hour's drive from where his rivals for the 2024 Republican presidential nomination were engaged in their third debate.
Trump's event was intended to upstage the other candidates, continuing a practice he has pursued now through three GOP debates. He has cited his commanding lead in the polls as the reason he hasn't been participating directly, but he has looked for ways to draw attention to himself with distinctive, simultaneous events.
At the rally, Trump referenced the debate happening across town, claiming no one was watching it. Later, he compared his rally to the debate: “I’m standing in front of tens of thousands of people right now and it’s on television. That’s a lot harder to do than a debate.” The stadium where he was speaking has a capacity of roughly 5,200 people.
Wednesday's rally also was an opportunity to showcase support among Latino voters in the Miami suburb of Hialeah, a community with a strong Cuban-American population where Trump remains popular enough that a City Council candidate used his image on campaign signs.
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Trump was introduced by Arkansas Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders, his former White House press secretary, who endorsed him at an event earlier this week. She praised him as her former boss, a friend and a mentor.
Trump began speaking about 20 minutes after the debate began, launching into a speech tailored for the largely Cuban-American audience before him. He criticized President Joe Biden's foreign policy, notably on Cuba, and said: "We are not the ones endangering American democracy. We are the ones saving American democracy from these terrible people."
Trump also said Biden and the Democrats were "after Catholics," adding: "Any Catholic or Christian that votes for a Democrat, I have to say, they're fools." He did not mention that Biden is Catholic.
Some Trump supporters had camped out more than a day in advance outside the venue, waving at honking commuters passing by. But when the event began, sections of the 5,000-seat outdoor football stadium remained empty. Trump was joined at the rally by mixed martial arts fighter Jorge Masvidal and comedian Roseanne Barr, who led the crowd in a profane chant and called him a "MAGA-dor," playing off his Make America Great Again slogan.
Hialeah is a critical part of South Florida’s hugely influential Cuban American community. It is all in for Trump.
"All we want is to get ahead in life. It seems a lot of politicians, all they do is set obstacles in our way," said Marcel Perez, a Hialeah resident who went with his wife, mother, uncle and father-in-law to vote in local races Tuesday. "Trump is the right person for the job because he opens the door for us."
Trump's campaign is using his event to demonstrate his strength heading into 2024 and to hammer the message that the five candidates debating in Miami are irrelevant.
Chris LaCivita, a senior Trump adviser, said the campaign would try to win an increasing percentage of the Hispanic vote in 2024. Trump did better among Hispanics in 2020 than he did in 2016, even as Biden captured a majority nationwide.
For Biden, LaCivita argued, what "was emerging as a problem" has now become "a full-blown crisis ... which gives President Trump, I think, an opportunity to really increase his standing and vote share in the Hispanic community."
Trump's campaign is planning primary ads on Hispanic TV and radio along with targeted mail. In a general election and likely rematch with Biden, Trump's advisers think his messages about the economy, the U.S.-Mexico border and cultural issues will resonate with Latinos.
"From the standpoint of the Trump campaign in the general election, we're going to aggressively pursue votes everywhere. We're going to compete everywhere for votes," he said. "We're extremely bullish on the fact that we have a receptive audience."
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Julie Chavez Rodriguez, Biden's campaign manager, held a news conference Tuesday in downtown Miami to promote the reelection effort’s work with Latinos. The Biden campaign has run ads in English, Spanish and Spanglish, combining words of both languages the way many Hispanics do in the United States.
"Latinos continue to support Democrats overwhelmingly," Chavez Rodriguez said. "That being said, we are not taking any of this for granted."
More than 95% of Hialeah's 220,000 residents identify as Hispanic or Latino, according to the most recent census numbers. Most are Cuban or Cuban American and speak Spanish at home.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis last year became the first Republican in 20 years to win Miami-Dade County, which includes Hialeah, on his way to a blowout reelection victory.
Data from AP VoteCast, a sweeping survey of the national electorate, found that more than half of Latino voters in the state backed DeSantis for governor in 2022, and a similar number supported Republican incumbent Marco Rubio in that year’s Senate race. Each candidate's total was higher than the 45% of Latinos who supported Trump for president in 2020.
Voting with his family in Hialeah, Perez credited DeSantis for pushing against COVID-19 vaccine mandates and lockdowns, a stand that is a key part of the governor's presidential campaign pitch. But the 41-year-old suggested DeSantis had "sacado las uñas," a Spanish expression that means someone has "taken out their fingernails," or become overly aggressive.
Trump has long courted the Cuban community, which skews more Republican than other Hispanics. According to Pew, a majority of Cuban American voters, 58%, identified as Republican or Republican-leaning before the 2020 election.
In the White House, Trump worked to undo President Barack Obama's Cuba engagement policy and he sanctioned socialist governments in Latin America. As he runs once more, Trump has ramped up his efforts to cast Democrats as Marxists, socialists and communists — language that may resonate with Cuban and Venezuelan exiles who fled poverty and political persecution.
After Trump appeared at a federal courthouse in Miami in June to plead not guilty to dozens of felony counts accusing him of hoarding classified documents and refusing government demands to give them back, he headed to Versailles, an iconic Cuban restaurant, coffee shop and bakery in the city’s Little Havana neighborhood that is a popular stop for politicians visiting Miami.
Trump, at the time, was cheered on by waiting supporters and later serenaded with “Happy Birthday” one day before his 77th birthday, and was prayed over by a rabbi.
Kevin Marino Cabrera, a Miami-Dade County commissioner who is scheduled to speak at Wednesday's rally, said Trump "is taking his message directly to the voters while the other candidates are debating in a room full of campaign staff and media for a possible VP nomination or a job in a Trump administration."
Unlike a debate crowd with loyalties split among candidates, Trump is expected to draw a boisterous audience that uniformly supports him.
"It's not a polite crowd. It's vociferous and festive," said Dario Moreno, a political science professor at Florida International University. "He's going to outshine those guys at the debate."