It was a warm afternoon in October 2008 when a large contingent of sheriff’s deputies on motorcycles roared into Spanish Springs Town Square.
The group, decked out in a variety of uniforms and aviator sunglasses, made a slow loop around the square and then zoomed down Main Street before disappearing, leaving several residents and Villages employees scratching their heads.
Twenty minutes later, it all made sense as a snazzy large tour bus slowly turned off U.S. Hwy. 27/441 and meandered its way down Main Street. The bus edged into both traffic lanes and then pulled to a stop in front of Kilwins Chocolates & Ice Cream. With traffic blocked in both directions, sheriff’s deputies appeared again, as did several men wearing nice suits, headsets and earpieces who were quite busy surveying the area.
Minutes later, smiling Democratic vice presidential hopeful U.S. Sen. Joe Biden and U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, sporting an even bigger grin, emerged from the bus. The two politicians were coming from a campaign rally in Ocala and decided to make an unannounced appearance in the mega-retirement community that at the time swung largely to the right – a long way from the left occupied by Biden and Nelson, who enjoyed legendary status in the Sunshine State as one of the biggest liberals in the Senate.
Biden chatted with a few stunned Villagers and signed autographs as a crowd started to gather along Main Street and on the sidewalk outside the ice cream parlor. The soon-to-be vice president already was known as a huge fan of ice cream – many years later, Cornell University’s Dairy would create a blend of vanilla and chocolate chips named “Big Red, White, and Biden” in his honor – so the fact that he’d stop after a campaign event for a tasty cone wasn’t a surprise. But what was somewhat of a shock is that he would do so in such a Republican stronghold just days before the November presidential election.
But Biden didn’t seem to care. And Nelson, long a foe of The Villages top brass, couldn’t stop smiling and laughing as he shook hands and hobnobbed with Democrats who were just happy to see a friendly political face in The Villages for a change.
A short time later, the national media traveling with Biden rolled in and started pushing the crowd out of the way as they jockeyed for position to photograph and videotape the senator eating an ice cream cone – again. One local journalist could be seen arguing mightily with one of Biden’s campaign staffers. And one of his handlers was overheard expressing fear at what might happen once the television cameras started rolling.
“I never know what he’s going to say,” the exasperated staffer said.
A little more than 30 minutes later, after all the interviews were finished, Biden had finished his vanilla chocolate chip ice cream and Nelson had shaken every hand he could find, the contingent loaded back on the bus and it slowly pulled away.
Still-in-shock residents waved as the huge motor coach pulled away and headed around the square before getting back on U.S. Hwy. 27/441. And many were still talking about the impromptu visit just days later when Obama and Biden defeated Republicans John McCain and Sarah Palin, who had drawn a crowd of 60,000 at a Lake Sumter Landing rally a month earlier.