With their presidential nominee under a cloud of sexual-assault allegations, Florida Republican leaders gathered Saturday at one end of the critical I-4 corridor for their fundraising "Victory Dinner" before a final push toward the November elections.
Even as many Republicans have tried to avoid the conversation in recent days about GOP presidential nominee Donald Trump's vulgar comments about women --- and allegations that he repeatedly groped or kissed women against their will --- the furor surrounding the real-estate mogul hovered over the state party's quarterly meetings surrounding the dinner.
In some ways it was inevitable: Among those scheduled to address the dinner Saturday evening was Indiana Gov. Mike Pence, Trump's running mate.
The GOP has been roiled by the comments since they surfaced a little more than a week ago in a previously unaired video recorded in 2005 by the television show Access Hollywood. Several Republican elected officials at least temporarily rescinded endorsements of Trump, and most of them condemned his statements. The campaign of Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton has hammered the GOP ticket over the allegations.
But Republicans gathering at the Hilton Tampa Downtown Hotel tried to dispel the picture of a party in crisis.
When a reporter entered a meeting of the party's state committeemen and committeewomen Friday evening, the members showed their support for Trump by chanting his name. "Donald!" one side of the room yelled. "Trump!" the other responded.
Christian Ziegler, the committeeman from Sarasota County who led the meeting, said afterward that he didn't expect Republicans to lose much more support than usual this year.
"Every election, there's always a percentage from each party that do not support their nominee," Ziegler said. "I think what we're seeing now is that the media is pouring gas on the Republican side to really try and get that story up to really even the race and to tilt the race towards Hillary Clinton."
Ziegler said any lost support would be offset by new voters drawn to the party by Trump. And he said Democrats were struggling with their own divisions after Clinton's bruising primary campaign against U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, a self-proclaimed democratic socialist who excited young voters.
Whatever the dynamics of the race, there is no dispute that Florida is vital to Trump's hopes of cobbling together the 270 electoral votes to claim the White House on Nov. 8.
"We can't win if we don't win Florida. ... It's up to us to win (the race)," said Deborah Cox-Roush, a longtime Republican figure in Florida and Trump's grassroots director in the state.
Cox-Roush described the race as "a dead heat" in Florida, though recent polls have consistently shown Clinton with a narrow lead in the state.
Still, the comments by Trump and allegations of sexual misconduct continued to crop up. Attorney General Pam Bondi, a staunch Trump supporter, spoke out against Trump's Access Hollywood remarks during a meeting Friday of the Florida Federation of Republican Women in Pasco County. But she also reiterated her support for the nominee.
"I believe the statements that Donald Trump said were disgusting. Disgusting, period. .... I also believe in the Constitution of the United States of America," said Bondi, whose remarks were taped by ABC Action News in Tampa Bay.
And Christine Quinn, an underdog Republican candidate running against Democratic Congresswoman Kathy Castor for a Tampa-area U.S. House seat, cast doubts on some of the allegations against Trump. Quinn particularly questioned the accusation made by Jessica Leeds, who said Trump groped her 36 years ago on an airplane.
Trump has denied the allegations of every woman who has accused him of assault, and many of his supporters have argued, as Quinn did, that airplanes did not have armrests that lifted up at the time. That would seem to undermine a detail of Leeds' story as she recounted it to The New York Times.
"I guarantee you, she's thinking, Donald Trump is sitting next to me, and he's a billionaire, or a millionaire in that time, and she was probably coming onto him so damn strong, and he was probably pushing her away," Quinn told a gathering of county chairs.
Democrats were also attempting to continue tying Republican candidates to Trump. The U.S. Senate campaign of Democratic Congressman Patrick Murphy slammed Sen. Marco Rubio, the Republican incumbent, for planning to appear Saturday night with Pence.
"Donald Trump is a serial sexual predator and Marco Rubio is actively trying to make him our next president," said Murphy spokeswoman Galia Slayen in a statement issued Saturday. "Floridians deserve answers as to why Rubio believes this is acceptable behavior for our country's next leader."
Rubio, who ran for president against Trump, has endorsed Trump but noted in the wake of the Access Hollywood tape that he has "consistently rejected his offensive rhetoric and behavior."