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The Villages
Wednesday, October 5, 2022

Unlike with Bush’s visit in 2004, Trump not heavily backed by Villages Developer

If President Trump still speaks at The Sharon L. Morse Performing Arts Center on Tuesday, he will become the second sitting president to visit The Villages.

President Trump would become the second sitting president to visit The Villages. His planned stop here on Tuesday comes 15 years after President George W. Bush held a rally at Lake Sumter Landing.

Trump is scheduled to speak about Medicare during an invitation-only event that’s set for 2:15 p.m. It was uncertain Sunday night whether he would still visit the community following two mass shootings over the weekend and a third one last week. The president is supposed to speak about the shootings at a White House press conference on Monday.

In the past, Trump has been a regular visitor to Florida – he launched his reelection campaign in June at the Amway Center in Orlando and his “Winter White House,” Mar-a-Lago, is in Palm Beach – but he has never visited Florida’s Friendliest Hometown.

Trump’s visit would come almost 15 years after George W. Bush became the first sitting president to visit The Villages. Bush spoke to a much larger crowd during an Oct. 19, 2004 rally at Lake Sumter Landing that was watched closely by a slew of Secret Service agents and snipers on the rooftops of businesses surrounding Market Square.

President Bush speaks to supporters during an October 2004 rally in The Villages.

Like Trump, Bush was in the midst of a reelection campaign when he came to The Villages. But unlike Bush, Trump’s visit will be with a much smaller audience and it’s being billed as an official White House visit instead of a campaign stop.

A huge difference between the two visits is that Trump wasn’t supported by The Villages brass during his 2016 election campaign, while Bush enjoyed immense backing from late Villages Developer H. Gary Morse. The very limited audience hearing Trump speak will include a large contingent of Villages brass, department heads and employees who also didn’t support him but instead backed Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio early on in the 2016 campaign.

H. Gary Morse

Bush, on the other hand, rolled into town in 2004 with the full support of Morse and his family members. Morse had earned “Ranger” status on Bush’s re-election donor list, which meant he had rounded up least $200,000 in contributions for the president – thousands of dollars of which came from Villages businesses, department heads and employees. And Morse personally had contributed $2,000 – the maximum that was allowed by an individual – to the campaign, but his influence in raising money was seen as invaluable and it clearly put The Villages on the map as the place GOP candidates made a point to visit during various elections.

Bush was accompanied by his brother, Jeb, who was serving as governor at the time and also enjoyed immense support from Morse. In fact, Gov. Bush had served as the keynote speaker for the dedication of The Villages Charter Middle School in August 2001 and would play a key role in making it much easier for The Villages Regional Hospital to expand and serve as the keynote speaker at The Villages High School’s first graduation ceremony.

In 2004, Republicans outnumbered Democrats 2-1 in The Villages and the community provided the perfect photo op – the president addressing a large crowd of seniors, many of whom had served in the military. And, of course, the trip provided an opportunity to spend time with Morse and, no doubt, leave the community with a stack of large campaign contributions.

Villages Developer H. Gary Morse was a huge supporter of President Bush and his family. In fact, he earned the status of ‘Ranger’ in Bush’s reelection campaign, meaning he had rounded up at least $200,000 in contributions for the president.

When Bush stepped to the podium on that October afternoon, he started off his speech by playing off of Florida’s Friendliest Hometown’s catchphrase, “It’s a beautiful day in The Villages.”

He quipped: “I told Jeb it’s always a beautiful day in The Villages.”

From that moment on, it was clear that Bush had the crowd and the VIP-stacked group behind him – local politicians, dignitaries, hand-picked conservative residents and Villages department heads and their families – in the palm of his hand.

“I am proud to be the first sitting president ever to have visited The Villages,” he said, while addressing the crowd of about 15,000 people packed into Market Square. “The other ones missed out on a lot.”

Villagers for Trump members and other supporters of the president attended a watch party at Gator’s Dockside in Brownwood on June 18 to hear Trump announce his plans to run for re-election in 2020.

On Tuesday, Trump also will find a large group of supporters waiting for him, as members of Villagers for Trump – a grassroots organization with 1,700 members that clearly has become the choice of area Republicans – have scrambled to secure tickets for event. Ten members will participate in a more intimate chat about Medicare with the president. And others are planning to stage a rally outside the Sharon to welcome the president’s motorcade when it arrives after Air Force One lands in Ocala at 1 p.m.

It will be a moment that Villagers for Trump Founder David Gee and his members have been waiting for after countless hours of golf cart rallies, flag-waving events and other activities to support the president.

“He is under a lot of attack and we stand with him as a large group that is growing,” Gee said.

Suzanne Zimmerman, who serves as communications chair for Villagers for Trump, agreed.

“We’re excited that President Trump has recognized he has a hotbed here of supporters on fire and energized who celebrate his accomplishments,” she said. “He makes our campaigning for him so easy when we can point to the promises he’s made and kept, in spite of all the slams and errors sent his way.”

Villagers for Trump member Dick Clapp, of the Village of Calumet Grove, was one of many members of the group who came out to Wildwood on July 19 to show support for the president.

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