Trump's Hialeah rally draws thousands, upstages Republican debate in Miami
South Florida, specifically Miami and Hialeah, turned into the epicenter of Republican politics nationwide on Wednesday night.
On one stage at the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts, five presidential candidates squared off with each other to prove to Republican voters who was more worthy of their party’s nomination.
On another stage at Henry Milander Park, former President Donald Trump, the Republican front-runner, leading by double digits in polls, rallied his legions of supporters and railed against his GOP rivals and President Biden.
At the Arsht Center, Miami police had closed surrounding streets in preparation for potential protests and heavy traffic before the third Republican presidential primary debate.
But there were few demonstrators in the hours leading up to the 8 p.m. debate featuring South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley, former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and biotech entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy.
Amid the empty streets outside the Arsht Center was Daniel Berger, of Miami. He told WLRN that he showed up to support DeSantis.
He said he was in Israel during the Oct. 7 attack by Hamas — and returned home to Florida on a flight he says was chartered by the DeSantis administration.
Florida officials said the state spent an estimated $4 million to help transport one group of about 270 Americans from Israel last month following the Hamas attack.
“I voted for him as governor and I intend to vote for him as president of the United States,” Berger said.
Even the so-called “free speech” zone designated by police for public speakers had just three people show up.
Roberta Stein told WLRN she came to support her friend, 81-year-old Bob Kunst. They belong to the same Miami Beach synagogue.
Kunst said he’s a registered Democrat but will vote for Trump “even if he’s in jail.” He said he wants to see a strong U.S. response to the Oct. 7 Hamas attack and strong backing of Israel.
Gabrielle Paige, 23, moved to Miami from Ohio three years ago. She was walking her dog, Pumpkin, around the Arsht Center before the debate began.
“I was at one point in my life very passionate about politics. However, I feel like it has changed with time," she said. "I think growing up, I kind of realized that I, as an individual, don't have as much power as I once believed as a high schooler and college student.”
Reproductive rights is an important issue for Paige, as is the age of the candidates. She said she is looking for a younger candidate.
On the debate stage, the Republican presidential candidates opened with a sharp question about why they were stronger than Trump, who skipped the third GOP debate because he said he's far ahead in polling nationally and in the early primary states.
DeSantis slammed the former president for skipping all the debates, saying he should be there answering tough questions like why he didn’t keep the promise to wall off the entirety of the U.S.-Mexico border and have Mexico pay for it.
DeSantis also said Trump promised the country it’d win enough to get tired of it, adding, “I’m sick of Republicans losing,” pointing to Democrats’ big night in many key races across the country in Tuesday’s election.
Haley, Trump’s U.N. ambassador, called him “the right president for the right time,” but said he wasn’t now, chiding him for running up federal deficits.
Ramaswamy was even more blunt, calling Republicans “a party of losers.”
Trump rally draws thousands
On the other side of Miami-Dade, at Henry Milander Park, Trump supporters camped out more than a day in advance outside the 5,000-seat outdoor football stadium venue, waving at honking commuters passing by.
Miami-Dade County Commissioner Kevin Marino Cabrera told the Associated Press that 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.”
Before Trump appeared on stage, one group, “TrumpLatinos” posted on X, formerly Twitter, a video of Latinos shouting “USA, USA, USA,” behind a local Univision reporter. All wore MAGA caps.
Trump has gained a foothold among Miami-Dade voters over the years. In 2020, Trump lost to Biden in Miami-Dade County by just seven percentage points. Four years earlier, Democrat Hillary Clinton trounced Trump by 30 percentage points.
Trump’s strong showing in the state’s biggest county catapulted him to capture Florida’s 29 electoral votes in 2020. He only lost Miami-Dade by about 85,000 votes but won statewide by 371,686 votes.
Hialeah is home to a large number of Cubans and Cuban-Americans who tend to vote Republican. More than 95% of Hialeah's 220,000 residents identify as Hispanic or Latino, mostly Cuban or Cuban Americans, according to the most recent census numbers.
“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.”
“I go to all Trump events,” said Paul Rodriguez, a Cuban American voter who wore a T-shirt bearing Trump's mug shot. “I hope common sense returns to America. Donald Trump speaks for us, while Democrats do it for corporations and other countries.”
Todd Graham, who drove from Fort Lauderdale to attend the Hialeah rally, said he knows Trump can be brash and make people angry but believes the former president is the best choice for the country.
“It's not that I'm blindly loyal to the guy,” he told WLRN. “Is there somebody better?”
Another Trump supporter, Anthime Gionet, known as “Baked Alaska” to his social media followers, told WLRN he’s backing Trump regardless of the 91 felony counts in four criminal cases in Washington, New York, Florida and Georgia.
“I'm going to vote for Trump no matter what,” he told WLRN. “Nothing's going to change that [and] I think most people feel the same way.”
“We just really don't care about what comes out because Trump's our guy,” he added.
His social media videos made him an influential figure in far-right political circles. He was sentenced earlier this year to two months of imprisonment for joining the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol.
Parade of celebrity Trump backers
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.
U.S. Senate candidate Kari Lake, of Arizona and former Fox News host Kimberly Guilfoyle also were in attendance, firing up the stadium crowd.
Arkansas Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders, who was Trump’s former White House press secretary, introduced Trump.
She praised Trump as a leader, a mentor, a boss, saying the country needs Trump “to finish what he started eight years ago.”
The crowd kept shouting, “We want Trump,” before the former president finally took the stage at about 8:20 p.m.
Trump pointed to his supporters, saying “thank you” again and again. He hugged Huckabee Sanders before launching into his remarks.
He addressed his loyal backers as “God-fearing American patriots.”
The crowd responded, chanting “USA, USA, USA.”
In his remarks, he referred to DeSantis as 'DeSanctimonious,' Haley as ‘Birdbrain’ Haley and to Biden as 'Crooked Joe.'
Trump made only passing reference to the debate across town, saying 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.”
Following Wednesday night's debate, the Trump campaign issued a blistering statement dismissing the GOP debate.
“Unless you’re a fan of cheap knockoffs or out-of-tune tribute bands, tonight’s GOP debate was a complete waste of time and money" said Trump Campaign Senior Advisor Chris LaCivita. "Donald J. Trump is going to be the next President of the United States. It’s up to DeSantis and Haley to determine if they want a political future…or not.”
The Associated Press contributed to this story.