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At Trump rally, helicopter rides, an elephant, and a defense of words

SARASOTA, Fla. -- The war of words between New York Times reporter Serge Kovaleski and GOP front-runner Donald Trump ramped up on Saturday as Trump attempted to put yet another firestorm to rest.

Donald Trump fires back at disabled New York Times reporter

After days of accusations that he mocked Kovaleski's disability, arthrogryposis, which limits the functioning of joints, Trump said that Kovaleski was using his disability to try to gain fame and denied, in spite of evidence otherwise, that he knows who Kovaleski is or that he was mocking Kovaleski's disability.

"The problem is he's using what he's got to such a horrible degree," Trump said. "I think it's disgraceful, and I think the New York Times should give me an apology. And I would love to have the apology before they go out of business."

At the same time, Trump ramped up the rhetoric on his widely debunked claims about Muslims allegedly celebrating the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in New Jersey, saying - without proof - that, "everybody admits worldwide the Muslims were absolutely going wild."

Trump went on, "Many people know it took place, and everybody knows it took place worldwide. So why wouldn't it take place in very strong Muslim communities?"

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Kovaleski has pushed back against Trump's claims about him, telling the Times that he met Trump "around a dozen times" as a reporter for the New York Daily News covering Trump. The Daily News even dug into the archives and released a 1989 piece that Kovaleski wrote, in which he spent the whole day with Trump at the release of Trump Shuttle, an airline Trump bought that eventually was sold due to a bankruptcy filing.

But in Florida, Trump wasn't having it.

"And I said, 'When? In the 1980s?'" Trump said. "The 1980s, that's a long time - 30, 35 years. That's a long time ago."

Just earlier this week, Trump said, "Despite having one of the all-time great memories I certainly do not remember him." In a separate statement, Trump said, "The good part for Serge is that he has gotten more publicity in the last 48 hours than he has in the past 35 years - and he obviously loves it which is why he keeps pushing this ridiculous story - but that's fine with me."

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Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump supporters parade an elephant in front of a rally in Sarasota, Florida, Nov. 28, 2015. Reuters

Saturday's speech, in front of thousands in Sarasota, was full of sights and sounds not typically seen at political rallies. An elephant roamed the grounds in front of Robarts Arena to the delight of supporters, with "Trump: Make America Great Again" painted on it. According to a Gawker investigation, the elephant's owner - a noted Trump fan - was charged with four counts of animal cruelty in the 1990s and evaded an arrest warrant for 16 years.

When Trump asked the crowd - as he typically does - if anyone has read "The Art of the Deal," one man waved his hands in the air jubilantly with two books. One, of course, was Trump's. The other was a book about Kama Sutra.

Trump also addressed an overflow crowd of at least 1,500 multiple times, once before the rally and once after. He landed in a helicopter with his name emblazoned on it with music from the movie "Air Force One" starring Harrison Ford blasting across the grounds.

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When Trump landed, Trump offered children - more specifically, "six to seven little beautiful children" - a ride in the helicopter. For a child to be selected, Trump said he or she had to be, "gorgeous, wonderful but only really well-behaved."

As the children flew away, Trump implored the crowd to "cheer for your children," and then he remarked, "Isn't that cute?"

After the speech, Trump went outside again to express his admiration for the crowd that waited hours to hear him speak where he delivered another Trump-ism.

"Me is not me. Me is you. We're all in this together."

While Trump showed no signs of wear from a seemingly endless stream of controversy, the same could doubly be said for his supporters.

"I think it's just the media just propping it up to make it interesting for everyone," said Michael Juzwa, a 57-year-old occupational therapist. "I mean, if you look at it, he degraded women, he did this and did that. But none of that has pulled him down. He's just gotten stronger. He's a straight shooter, he says what he says. You shouldn't be offended. Why are you offended by some of these things? You should be harder than that."

Another supporter, 25-year-old accountant Vladimir Pochebyt, even implied the controversies were all part of Trump's master plan.

"I think he's doing it to his advantage," Pochebyt said. "I think he says something - but not to an extreme - but it kind of catches the attention and then he clarifies. He knows how to draw the crowds. I think it's a tactic of his, which I really admire."

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A white Black Lives Matter protester briefly interrupted Trump's speech - and Trump, sensitive to criticism that he incited the crowd to physically harm a protester last weekend in Birmingham, Alabama - went out of his way to implore the crowd to be nice to the protester as she was escorted out.

"Don't be rude. Don't be rude please," Trump said. "Don't hurt the person. "Please nicely escort the person out."

This was Trump's second visit to Florida since announcing his campaign, but his third day in the state. His previous visits include Doral and Jacksonville. A Real Clear Politics poll average from Oct. 28 to Nov. 16 shows Trump leading in Florida at 32 percent. Retired neurosurgeon Dr. Ben Carson is in second place at 18 percent, while Florida Sen. Rubio is at 17.3 percent.