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The Wall street Journal
Monday November 16 2015
Real-estate tycoon Donald Trump takes on native sons Marco Rubio and Jeb Bush in Sunshine State
Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump arriving for his speech at the Sunshine Summit in Orlando on Friday.
Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump arriving for his speech at the Sunshine Summit in Orlando on Friday.

Donald Trump is staking claim to a state that helped cinch the last two GOP presidential nominations, barreling past a couple of native sons in the race.

At a weekend gathering of hundreds of Florida Republican activists, he elicited a rowdier reception than Sen. Marco Rubio and former Gov. Jeb Bush and he is leading them in statewide polls.

“I’m not leading them. I’m trouncing them,” corrected Mr. Trump in an interview Friday with The Wall Street Journal, pulling a list of the latest polling from his breast pocket. Mr. Trump is favored by 27% of state GOP voters, while Mr. Rubio’s standing is at 16% and Mr. Bush has the support of 9%, according to the Real Clear Politics polling average. “They’re politicians…They’re not capable of doing the things that I can do,” Mr. Trump said.
Florida’s winner-take-all primary will award 99 delegates—roughly 8% of the total needed to clinch the nomination—and is viewed as a must-win for Messrs. Rubio and Bush.

While Mr. Trump has never held public office in Florida, he isn’t trespassing either. Years before Messrs. Bush and Rubio ran for election, in 1985, he snatched up a grand Palm Beach estate once owned by cereal heiress Marjorie Merriweather Post. Mar-a-Lago, now an upscale club, and four golf courses in the Sunshine State comprise his biggest real-estate empire outside New York; they generated about $92 million in revenue in 2014, according to financial disclosures.

“I’ve had tremendous success in Florida,” Mr. Trump said. “I’ve employed thousands of people here.”

Mr. Trump also has weathered soured real-estate deals, unsuccessful court battles with local governments, and criticism from local officials for disparaging immigrants.

Now, a candidate who has only minimally invested in the trappings of a national campaign faces the challenge of building a political operation from scratch in the third largest state.

“This is not a state where you get to come and play without an investment in actual media and operation,” said Republican consultant Rick Wilson, who is backing Mr. Rubio. “Jeb and Marco have tons of people who are very experienced in turning voters out, and you can’t make that happen for free.”

Mr. Trump’s advisers say his campaign will be unconventional, banking on a groundswell from Republicans who haven’t been regular voters to transfer into turnout in the March 15 primary election. The celebrity businessman held his first campaign event in the state just three weeks ago, at his own golf resort in the Miami area. Thousands of people came to his rally the next day in Jacksonville.

He is backed by an experienced team. Susie Wiles, campaign manager for Republican Gov. Rick Scott in 2010, and Joe Gruters, vice chairman of the Florida Republican Party, are serving as figureheads of Mr. Trump’s campaign. Karen Giorno, who worked for Mr. Scott and in both Bush White Houses, is the state director. The involvement of people tied to the governor, who isn’t close to Messrs. Bush or Rubio, raises the prospect of a potentially influential endorsement.

Gov. Scott has said it’s too early for an endorsement,
“By all measures, Florida should be Jeb or Marco territory, but it feels like it’s Donald Trump’s time,” Ms. Wiles said.

Mr. Trump has donated $111,000 to the Florida Republican Party since 2009 and a further $125,000 to Mr. Scott’s political committee. And he told the Journal he would invest in television and radio ads in Florida.

“They say, ‘Oh Jeb, has $100 million,’ ” he said, referring to the Right to Rise super PAC backing Mr. Bush. “I have many, many times that….This campaign, this is not a big expense for me.”

In his financial disclosure report for 2014, filed earlier this year, Mr. Trump reported “golf-related revenues” of $49.5 million from Trump National Doral in Miami, $15.6 million from Mar-a-Lago, $12.7 million from Trump International Golf Club in West Palm Beach, $12.4 million from Trump National Golf Club in Jupiter, and $1.9 million from the Great White Course in Miami
Other Florida projects, in which Mr. Trump sold his name to developers, suffered in the state’s volatile real-estate market, showing that the Trump brand is not invincible.

Lenders in 2010 foreclosed on Trump Hollywood, a condominium tower built by Related Group, and sold the $227 million mortgage to another developer for $180 million. In Fort Lauderdale, the 24-story oceanfront Trump International Hotel & Tower fell into foreclosure in 2012. About 200 investors who thought Mr. Trump’s name and pictures in the glossy brochures meant he was involved in construction sued to recover their deposits, said Fort Lauderdale attorney Joseph Altschul.

“My clients were misled,” said Mr. Altschul, who represented more than 50 buyers who put down between $100,000 and $400,000 in a lawsuit against Mr. Trump. “Perhaps he’s not as different from career politicians who I personally believe are untrustworthy and say what they need to say to get elected.”

Mr. Trump denied any liability in court documents and took his name off the project. Mr. Altschul said he couldn’t disclose terms of the settlements.

In a similar case, buyers who put down deposits on condos in Trump Tower Tampa sued Mr. Trump after construction halted, alleging he misled them about the $260 million project. Mr. Trump denied any deception. Lawsuits were also brought against the developer, which filed for bankruptcy protection in 2008. Some suits against Mr. Trump were settled out of court.

Asked about setbacks in Florida’s real-estate market, Mr. Trump said he had none. He noted the success of other licensing deals, including Trump Grande and Trump Towers in Sunny Isles, from which he reported earning $100,001 to $1 million in 2014.

“When the market crashed I fought for a couple of things,” he said. “It ended up being very successful.”

In January, Mr. Trump sued Palm Beach County for the fourth time, claiming that airport officials directed traffic over his historic Palm Beach club, causing “noise, pollutants and emissions to invade Mar-a-Lago.” An attorney representing the county said in court documents that the $100 million lawsuit “appears designed to create press buzz for Trump’s announced presidential campaign, cocktail party braggadocio, and negotiating leverage while imposing unnecessary expense on the county and taking up this court’s valuable time.”

Mr. Trump is also facing criticism for his hard-line position against illegal immigration in a state in which 14% of the 2012 GOP primary voters were Hispanic. His assertion that Mexico was sending “rapists” and drug dealers into the U.S. prompted Miami Mayor Tomas Regalado to say Mr. Trump was no longer welcome in his city. The Miami-Dade County Commission passed a resolution condemning Mr. Trump’s “racist and derogatory remarks about immigrants.”

In the Journal interview, Mr. Trump said he has employed hundreds of Hispanic workers at his resorts. “I’m going to win the Hispanic vote because I’m going to bring jobs back from China, from Japan, from all these countries ripping us off,” he said. “I think the people here know I love Florida.”

—Rebecca Ballhaus contributed to this article.

Write to Beth Reinhard at



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