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Trump blasts Biden and praises border wall at Tucson rally

With all the fervor of a rock concert, thousands of people endured 92-degree heat on a tarmac patch at Tucson International Airport to see President Donald Trump speak as part of his Arizona barnstorming tour on Monday. 

As the election comes to a close with just two weeks remaining, the president faces the possibility that a state once considered a reliable bulwark for Republicans will go rogue and vote for the Democrats, including former Vice President Joe Biden. Among the five polls completed in October, only one shows the president leading Biden in a state he once carried by 3.5 percent. A CBS/YouGov poll sought out 1,064 registered voters in Arizona, and 49 percent said they would vote for Biden, sending 11 electoral votes to Democrats in a tight election.

Photos: Trump stumps in Tucson

At the same time, the president's own political issues may be dragging down U.S. Sen. Martha McSally, who is facing a double-digit polling gap against former astronaut Mark Kelly — Gabby Gifford's husband. 

Some Trump supporters waited for five hours to see the president speak for just under an hour, some standing in a half-mile line that ended at the Tucson Jet Center, at the northeast corner of the airport. 

The rally came exactly two weeks after a scheduled campaign event was cancelled because the president contracted a COVID-19 infection. Rather than coming to Tucson on Oct. 5, the president spent the weekend at Walter Reed Army Medical Center. 

On Monday, the president flew to Prescott to speak to voters, and then headed to Tucson. As hundreds listened to Phil Collins "In the Air Tonight," the president's Air Force One landed at TIA, and as the president prepared to step off the plane the crowd heard the Village People's "Macho Man." 

In late June, Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey issued an order prohibiting large gatherings of 50 or more "even if appropriate physical distancing is possible." The order including a carve-out for political events. Pima County Health Director Dr. Theresa Cullen said she "strongly encourages anyone attending any gathering of any kind practice physical distancing and wear a mask to help prevent the spread of COVID-19." And, the county is covered by an emergency public health order that requires face covering be worn when physical distancing cannot be maintained.

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Tucson Mayor Regina Romero, a Democrat, sent Trump a “friendly reminder” of the city’s mask regulations – and the fact that Trump’s campaign still owed the city for security from previous visits.

But, as the president arrived, the crowd surged forward, often standing shoulder-to-shoulder in the heat to see the president. While many wore masks — some covered with Trump campaign logos, or the American flag — many did not wear them, including about half of the people packed into a small grandstand that provided Trump with a backdrop. There were about 3,000 attendees crowded into a patch of pavement in front of a private jet hangar that is part of the airport complex.

As the president ambled onto the stage with Lee Greenwood's "God Bless the USA" on the speakers, hundreds of people packed in close, and the heat caused at least three people to collapse, forcing U.S. Secret Service and Tucson Fire Department EMTs to come to their aid. 

Trump began his speech by telling people to vote their "absentee ballot," before he asked how people vote in Arizona. "When do you do it? Today? You can go out and vote today, they say, go out and vote." 

Early voting began in Arizona on Oct. 7, and the Pima County Recorder's Office has already received 191,755 ballots by mail, and another 4,751 ballots from early voting sites. 

"Remember the old-fashioned days when you would actually go out and vote? Today, they send you millions of ballots," Trump said, making a hyperbolic reference to his oft-expressed complaint that voting by mail is illegitimate, and has a huge potential for fraud. Voting officials continue to caution the public that vote-by-mail, or in Arizona's case, early voting, is secure even as they also have to encourage people to send their ballots in immediately to ensure they arrive on time because of administrative cuts to the U.S. Postal Service by a Trump appointee. 

Trump jumped away from voting to attack Biden, and praise the U.S. economy during his tenure, and he said that the COVID-19 pandemic, which has killed more than 220,000 people in the U.S.,  and infected more than 8.2 million was "rounding the turn." 

"Under my leadership, prosperity will surge," he said. "What we have done in the last three and a half years has been incredible," he said, arguing that soon "optimism will boom." 

"The pandemic is rounding the turn," he said. "I look fine, don't I? We will get back to a normal life. Seven months ago, we want to get back. We will be better than that very soon," Trump said. 

Later, he attacked Biden saying that people had a choice between a "Trump super recovery or a Biden depression." And, a choice between the "American dream or a Socialist nightmare."

"We are opening up rapidly, we have a v-shaped—it is maybe v-shaped—it is maybe a super-v, which nobody ever heard of before," Trump claimed.  

He said that women should vote for him, especially suburban women because he eliminated a rule that would require low-income housing as part of government-funded projects. Trump's line of attack was well-worn, based on the end of an Obama-era rule added in 2015 which would have required local governments directly receiving certain federal funding to study patterns of segregation and improve them. Ben Carson, Trump's secretary for Housing and Urban Development removed the rule in July, and since then, the president has claimed that "saved" the suburbs. 

And, he attacked Biden as "corrupt," referenced reporting from the New York Post that emails from a laptop link Biden's son Hunter with a scheme to use money from a Ukrainian company to enrich the Biden family. Biden, he claimed made a "corrupt exchange for his party's nomination." Here the crowd chanted, "lock him up." 

This was the "second biggest scandal politically in the history of our country," the president claimed, adding "number one was spying on my campaign and getting caught." 

Biden is a "servant" of "Washington vultures who got rich bleeding America dry," Trump said. "In 2016, you voted to get rid of this corrupt and decrepit establishment and you elected an outsider as president who is finally putting America first." 

"Joe Biden has and always will be a corrupt politician. As far as I'm concerned, the Biden family is a criminal enterprise," Trump told the crowd. 

"I'm not just running against Biden, I'm running against the left-wing media, the big tech giants, and the Washington swamp," he said.

Before he departed, Trump strutted as the Village People's "YMCA" pulsed through the PA system, as his supporters waved and cheered.

'Best border we've ever had'

While Trump has avoided talking about the border and immigration at times, in Tucson he made sure to note it. 

"Under my leadership, we achieved the most secure border in U.S. history, and our southern border. And, I want to thank Mexico right now has 27,000 troops guarding our border," he said. "And, we built almost 400 miles of the wall, we're averaging about 10 miles a day. And it's the best—it's exactly what Border Patrol wanted. I said I'd just like to put up concrete planks, but they didn't, they said 'no sir, we gotta' have it this way, sir.'" 

"We gave them the ultimate, we gave them everything they wanted, they're really happy, and it's had a huge impact. We got the best border we've ever had and you know what? You have a big chunk of it right here," Trump said. 

Since January 2017, 321 miles of "primary wall" and another 50 miles of "secondary wall" have been built in the U.S. This includes 326 miles of "dilapidated or outdated" barriers, and 16 miles of new "primary wall" and 29 miles of "secondary wall." 

In recent weeks, construction firms under contract with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers have pushed hard to complete as many miles of wall as possible before December, churning through dozens of miles of desert in wildlife refuges, national forests, and conservation areas. 

On October 16, U.S. Customs and Border Protection said that since January 2017, the agency has planned to build 738 miles of walls—including 663 miles of "primary" and 64 miles of "secondary" barriers—along the U.S.-Mexico border at a total cost of nearly $15 billion. 

This includes $6.3 billion from money from funding earmarked for counter-narcotics operations, and another $3.6 billion in military construction funding that was shifted under Section 2808 of federal law, which allows the president to use the National Emergency Act to authorize military construction projects that aid the U.S. military.

Federal courts have rejected these financial maneuvers, and before Trump spoke in Tucson Monday, the Supreme Court agreed to hear arguments about a case launched by the American Civil Liberties Union and the Sierra Club, and the Southern Borders Communities Coalition. 

"You have 200 miles, they tell me, 200 miles. 200 miles I didn't even know you had. That's a lot of mileage, you're not paying a damn cent for it," Trump said, forgetting an earlier line about how federal taxes soaked Arizona taxpayers. "All compliments of..." Trump paused and threw out his arms for dramatic effect. "....the federal government." 

Trump then argued that walls were not obsolete. "Two things don't get obsolete, walls and wheels right? Everything else is obsolete." And, he critiqued plans to use drones to surveil the wall rather than the 30-foot barriers the federal government has installed.

"You can have drones watching everybody pour into the country," he said. "Nope, 200 miles of wall in Arizona and you got it all, it's all done." 

Trump pauses to praise Arizona politicians

During his speech, Trump praised Gov. Doug Ducey, and Sen. Martha McSally, who he said is "saving your Second Amendment." 

"She's been a great, great senator," he said. And, then he pointed to her, "Martha, come here, honey." McSally briefly took the stage as Trump continued, "She has been a great, great senator and just go out and vote for Martha McSally. Save your Second Amendment, save your Second Amendment." 

"Thank you, darling," he said, and McSally left the stage. 

'She's done a great job, she's a worker, and a great fighter pilot," he said. "They told me all about her, the other pilots, they said she was a great fighter pilot." 

He also referenced Brandon Martin, the Republican candidate for Congressional District 2 who faces Ann Kirkpatrick for the seat, calling Martin "a star." 

Among Trump supporters, new citizens

Susanne Mary Philips carried a scrapbook with her, and asked attendees, including members of the local media to sign the book. Philips, a native of Alberta, Canada, came to the U.S. in 1982 and became a citizen in 2018. "This year is my first chance to vote for a president," Philips said proudly. "And, I'm voting for Trump." 

Sharlene Baker wore a red t-shirt that read "Remember November" that she had custom screen-printed. "He's the first president I've ever seen in my life," she said. "It's about damn time." 

With four members of her family in two, including her mother and father in tow, My Doan said she came to support the president. A Vietnamese immigrant, she praised the president. "He's good for the country, and we want to see him keep making America great." 

Tami Hedge wore tall white boots, and a red Trump hat that sparkled in the sun. "I support my president and my country," she said. Her favorite thing about the president was his bluntness, she said. "Political correctness has made this country rather soft, and people are too afraid to offend other people, and hurt their feelings. But we need that, we have to get our feelings hurt to keep us from becoming too full of themselves." 

"We believe in our president," said Chris Brooks.  "We really support him and we're tired of being quiet," she said, standing with Matthew Fatovich who was wearing a Trump flag as a cape. Fatovich made sure to point out that they both rode Harley-Davidson motorcycles, and said that if anything, a Trump event was a good opportunity for "eye candy." 

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"Our families don't feel safe, they felt like they can't show they're Trump supporters because they'll be a target," Brooks. said. 

While Fatovich said he agreed with everything the president stood for, Brooks broke on one subject, the release of his tax returns. "He should have released them," she said. "He promised he would do it, and she should have, but they don't matter much." 

"He's done more for those who work than the people in Washington," Fatovich said. "That's what matters." 

Bianca Lehman, and her daughter Oriana Lehman stood in the shade of a hanger, pressing against the press cordon. Bianca Lehman had become a U.S. citizen after 50 years in the United States, according to sign she prominently displayed, hailing originally from Sicily. For her first presidential election after being in the Tucson area for decades, she was ready to vote for Trump.

Democrats cite COVID-19 risks

In her letter the campaign, Romero estimated that the cost of “public safety response service” for Monday’s rally would cost about $50,000. And that’s on top of the $80,000 she said the Trump campaign still owes from a 2016 rally held at the convention center.

Chris King, first vice chairman for the Pima County Republican Party, criticized what he called Romero’s hypocrisy, noting the Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders still owed the city for campaign events from his 2016 run for the Democratic presidential nomination.

Romero said she welcomed the president’s rally, but asked that organizers abide by Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines for COVID-19 safety, including mask-wearing and social distancing. She said city officials were concerned “that this can become a super-spreader event,” but conceded there was only so much the city can do.

“There’s not much we can do unless we have a police officer handing tickets and we’re not going to do that,” Romero said. “Police officers in this event are going to be protecting the president of the United States; that’s our number one concern.”

Joshua Polacheck, executive director for the Pima County Democratic Party, said Tucson welcomes all political parties but not if it means losing ground in the fight to contain COVID-19.

“Tucson is a very welcoming town. We believe that people of all political persuasions should be welcomed here, but we are also in the middle of a global pandemic,” he said.

He said Monday’s Arizona stops suggest “a little desperation” by Republicans in the home stretch of the election.

“The path to victory to victory for Joe Biden is very broad,” Polacheck said. “One of the paths to victory goes through Arizona. We think that we have a vision for America that the people of Arizona agree with.”

Where Polacheck saw desperation, however, King saw inspiration. He said Trump’s visit Monday “helped rally the base of Southern Arizona voters.”

Cronkite News reporter Josh Ortega contributed to this report.

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Paul Ingram/TucsonSentinel.com

Hundreds came out to see President Trump speak during a rally on Monday in Tucson.