PANAMA CITY BEACH — With less than a month to go before Florida could decide the fate of his campaign, Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump began a swing through the state Tuesday with a nearly apocalyptic warning of the stakes of the November election.
Speaking to thousands of cheering supporters at Aaron Bessant Park in Panama City Beach, Trump painted Democratic opponent Hillary Clinton as a pawn of a global establishment who would usher in the destruction of the nation. He also opined on a variety of issues in Florida, including whether the management of Lake Okeechobee has caused droughts in the state.
"This election will determine whether we remain a free country in the truest sense of the word or we become a corrupt banana republic controlled by large donors and foreign governments," Trump told the crowd. "The election of Hillary Clinton would lead to the destruction of our country."
Trump later described Clinton as "the vessel (of) a corrupt global establishment that's raiding our country and surrendering the sovereignty of our nation."
Trump grounded his argument in the release of hacked emails from Clinton campaign officials. The documents were released by the WikiLeaks organization, but the U.S. intelligence community has suggested that previous documents released by that organization aimed at damaging Clinton were first illegally obtained by Russian agents.
Critics say the emails, which include transcripts of private speeches Clinton gave after leaving her position as secretary of state, show that Clinton is disingenuous and gave special treatment to contributors to her family foundation.
Trump's campaign announced a total attendance at the rally Tuesday night at 20,000 --- including 10,000 inside the park and another 10,000 outside. It wasn't possible to verify those estimates.
The real-estate businessman, who is a part-time Florida resident, also touched on issues closer to the Sunshine State. Trump appeared to claim — perhaps jokingly — that the mismanagement of water releases from Lake Okeechobee caused chronic dry conditions in parts of the state.
"They're always letting the water out," Trump said. "Do you ever notice, we always have droughts. They're always letting the water out. I said, keep it in. We won't have so many droughts. We won't have any droughts."
Releases from Lake Okeechobee have long been controversial, but not because of suggestions that they cause droughts. Instead, the water is blamed for fouling coastal estuaries.
Trump also repeated his endorsement of U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio's re-election effort. Rubio and Trump were once locked in a bitter battle for the presidential nomination, but Rubio has since endorsed the nominee and stood by Trump even after a tape from 2005 revealed the businessman and television personality making vulgar remarks about women. Rubio has said the remarks were offensive.
And Trump touted his multiple developments in the state.
"We've created a lot of jobs," Trump said, playfully adding: "So … if you guys don't vote for me as a victor, I'm going to be very angry at you."
Trump's three-day swing through Florida — which is also set to feature appearances in Ocala, Lakeland and West Palm Beach — comes as polls show Trump slipping behind Clinton in the state. It is highly unlikely that Trump can win the White House without Florida's 29 electoral votes.
The Panama City area is part of a Northwest Florida stronghold for Republican candidates in statewide races, something that state Rep. Matt Gaetz, running for a seat in Congress, referenced while talking to the crowd about former Vice President Al Gore's visit to South Florida with Clinton earlier Tuesday.
"In 2000, we made sure Al Gore was never going to be the president of the United States," Gaetz said.
Gore himself made reference to the state's 2000 recount, which cleared the way for the presidency of George W. Bush, during his remarks in Miami Beach as he stressed the importance of every vote.
"You can consider me as an Exhibit A of that truth," Gore said, according to a transcript released by the Clinton campaign.
For her part, Clinton savaged Trump over climate change.
"Donald Trump, is, quote, 'not a big believer' in climate change. ... We cannot risk putting a climate denier in the White House. At all, that is absolutely unacceptable," she said.