ROCHESTER, Minn. — A rally in Rochester whose lead-up had as many twists and turns as a soap opera culminated with President Donald Trump telling the faithful that he would win four more years, as he barnstormed the Upper Midwest.
"I didn't forget you Rochester," Trump said. "We're going to win Minnesota."
But almost everything about the event was colored by the preceding two days of dispute over crowd size. First the rally was set to be in Rochester, then Dodge Center, Minn., than back to Rochester.
By the time Trump touched down late Friday afternoon, the rally had been rebranded a "peaceful protest." Trump officials and GOP leaders railed against the state's Democratic leadership, calling state rules limiting crowd size to 250 a suppression of political speech and government overreach. City officials insisted the rules were meant to curb a rapidly spreading pandemic and to keep people safe.
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Hours before the event, Rochester Mayor Kim Norton tweeted her disappointment that a GOP representative was encouraging folks to head to the airport in defiance of the crowd size limits.
"We have rising covid cases and long lines at testing sites today. Please stay home," Norton tweeted.
Hundreds ignored the warning. Hours before the rally, a throng of Trump supporters gathered at Rochester International Airport, waving blue-and-red flags and chanting, "four more years!" A joyous, almost carnival-like atmosphere reigned among the mostly mask-less crowd of several hundred people.
High above them, a plane carried a banner that read, "SUPERSPREADER WARNING: TRUMP IN MN. MASK UP" The rally was held as coronavirus cases surged in Minnesota, surpassing the 3,000 mark for the first time and 18 more deaths were recorded.
The limited seating created intense competition for those scarce seats, and many expressed bitter disappointment that they had denied entrance.
Robert Marvin was one of first people in line to get one of the cherished spots inside the venue. He said he was thrilled about the rally and Trump's coming to Rochester, but was disappointed that so few people would get inside to see the president.
"I think it's really terrible that people who live here and who wanted to see the president, they're not being able to come in here and see him live," Marvin said. "It's kind of once-in-a-lifetime experience."
To beef up security, the Rochester Police Department held an emergency swearing-in ceremony for seven new officers.
Trump believes he can win Minnesota on his way to 270 electoral votes, investing manpower and resources to win a state that hasn't gone Republican since 1972.
Democrat Joe Biden held a competing event Friday afternoon in St. Paul at the Minnesota State Fairgrounds, where he promised a solution to the coronavirus pandemic, more affordable health care and return to the civility of American society.
“You have a sacred duty, a duty to vote. Minnesota matters," Biden told roughly 250 attendees at a drive-in rally. "We choose hope over fear, we choose union over division, science over fiction, we choose truth over lives. It’s time to stand up and take back our democracy. We can do this. We are so much better than this."
The dispute about Trump's crowd size erupted within hours of news that the president was coming to Rochester.
Not content to adhere to the state's limit of 250 people, Trump representatives searched for a more accommodating city and venue. For a while, it looked to be Dodge Center's McNeilus Steel. One manager boasted that an outdoors rally would bring 25,000 people. But, by late afternoon Thursday, they pulled up stakes again, shifting back to Rochester for reasons not entirely clear.
Trump officials and GOP state leaders targeted state leaders, blaming the "free speech-stifling dictates" of Gov. Tim Walz and Attorney General Keith Ellison.
"What people need to look at is the extreme abuse of power," State GOP Chairman Jennifer Carnahan said. "They are using every mechanism and tool available through the power of their office to play political games."
But Ellison's office said it did nothing to interfere with the event, only asking that McNeilus have a COVID-19 preparedness plan if it were to host the rally. Trump campaign officials' beef appeared to be with Rochester city officials, who didn't want to see a super-spreader event in their community.
The rally was held Friday even as coronavirus cases surged in Minnesota, surpassing the 3,000 mark for the first time and 18 more deaths were recorded.
Dressed in a Minute Man uniform, Tom Blondell said he had set up camp at the airport early Thursday afternoon. At some point, he decided to change into his Minute Man outfit to show some patriotism. But in the process, he left his number to the rally inside his jacket and wasn't able to get in.
"There's a lot of people who didn't get a number. So we're numberless," Blondell said.
Dana Ford of Mason City, was part of the overflow crowd and was frustrated that he had driven four hours to be denied entrance to the rally.
"I don't feel good about the governor's decision," Ford said, while still resolutely confident that he would get inside to the president. "It will be my first, and we're going to see Mr. Trump."