A day after three big wins that sent “Stop Trump” forces into a deeper panic, Republican frontrunner Donald Trump returned to North Carolina on Wednesday in hopes of delivering a knockout blow next week when the state’s voters – as well as those in Florida, Ohio, Missouri and Illinois – go to the polls.
Speaking to more than 10,000 supporters at the Crown Center Coliseum in Fayetteville, Trump raved about the big turnout and predicted “a fantastic night” Tuesday.
Trump, a billionaire businessman with a big blue-collar following, spoke for nearly an hour, ending with a promise to “bring jobs back” to North Carolina, a state that has seen many of its factory jobs vanish in recent decades because of cheaper foreign competition.
But Trump’s Fayetteville rally, like those elsewhere, was also marked by protesters – the boisterous and the silent – being booed, then led out by police, complete with commentary by Trump.
“Oh oh. So early,” he said three minutes into the Wednesday rally when the first of at least 14 protesters got the crowd’s notice. “Get ’em out! Don’t we love our police?”
Every few minutes after that, more protesters popped up in different parts of the coliseum, most of them young. They all stood, waving their arms or holding up signs or pointing to T-shirts with anti-Trump messages or, in one case, “Love your neighbor.” In each case, Trump supporters pointed at the culprits, and the crowd booed and then cheered as uniformed security raced to the scene. Trump, interrupted yet again, made another disparaging comment.
“They all look like spoiled kids,” he said. In one case Wednesday, a protester’s sign was ripped out of her hands by an older man. The sign read: “Mr. Trump, Your Bigotry Has No Place Here.”
Protests are nothing new for Trump rallies. At Rock Hill’s Winthrop University in January, Jibril Hough, a Muslim and spokesperson for the Islamic Center of Charlotte, was forcibly removed by police and security. So was Rose Hamid, a Charlotte Muslim whose offense was standing in silent protest.
Drew Kromer, a freshman at Davidson College, protested at a Trump rally Monday in Concord, interrupting the candidate with shouts of “Love thy Neighbor.” He and a dozen other students were escorted out.
They were also at the Fayetteville rally, holding up a banner that read “Davidson Against Bigotry,” with the Davidson College logo.
“We wanted to point out the hypocrisy that they can lean on the Bible for so many things,” Kromer said before Wednesday’s rally. “The Bible says ‘Love thy neighbor.’ It doesn’t say ‘Love thy neighbor unless they’re Muslim. Unless they’re Jewish.”
Before the Fayetteville rally, a group calling itself Southerners on New Ground sent out a press release saying that five LGBT southerners planned to disrupt Trump’s speech by holding up a banner. They said they were speaking for poor and working-class white people who do not support Trump’s harsh comments on Muslims and undocumented immigrants.
“Professional troublemakers,” Trump called all the protesters.
A spokeswoman for Fayetteville’s Crown Coliseum said the Trump campaign rented the venue. She said the Secret Service and local law enforcement agencies were charged with security. Rallies are patrolled by uniformed and plain-clothed security.
It was Trump’s second rally in North Carolina this week. On Monday, his speech at the Cabarrus Arena & Visitors Center attracted more than 4,000 people and was interrupted at least eight times by protesters.
Tuesday’s primaries will determine whether Trump is likely unstoppable or whether Republicans could perhaps have their first brokered convention since 1976.
The biggest prizes on Tuesday are Ohio and Florida because, unlike North Carolina, they are winner-take-all primaries. Those two states are getting most of the media attention, too, because they are also do-or-die contests for Ohio Gov. John Kasich and Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, Trump rivals who would be effectively eliminated from the race if they fail to win their home states.
But in North Carolina, where there is no favorite son candidate, a Trump win could fuel his momentum and add to his delegate lead. That may matter at a time when the Republican establishment – GOP donors and party elders such as Mitt Romney – are using TV spots and high-profile speeches to try to keep Trump from getting the 1,237 delegates he needs to get nominated at the Republican National Convention this July in Cleveland.
“This is arguably the biggest Tuesday of the year of the process for Republicans,” said analyst Stuart Rothenberg. “It has the potential to virtually guarantee that there will be a convention fight or the potential to crown one of the candidates the de facto nominee.”
Trump holds an 11-point lead in the Real Clear Politics average of recent N.C. polls. This week a poll for WRAL-TV showed him with a 14-point lead over U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas.
Trump also holds significant leads in Florida and Illinois, according to the latest polls. His tightest margin is in Ohio, where he has a 5-point lead over Kasich.
If Rubio and Kasich both lose their home states on Tuesday, that would likely leave Cruz as Trump’s sole opponent.
So far, Cruz is the only one to offer Trump a real challenge in North Carolina. On Tuesday, he spoke to packed churches in Kannapolis and Raleigh. He’ll campaign again in North Carolina on Sunday, headlining a rally at the Charlotte Motor Speedway that will also feature conservative TV host Glenn Beck and actor Chuck Norris.
Cruz trails Trump in delegates awarded so far by an estimated 462 to 358, according to The New York Times, and upcoming states in the North and West are demographically more favorable to Trump.
The Republican presidential candidates have another debate at 8:30 p.m. Thursday at the University of Miami. The debate airs on CNN.
The Trump fans who attended the Wednesday rally in Fayetteville saluted his willingness to “say what everybody else is thinking but don’t have the guts to say,” as Yvonne Cooke, a retired school employee from Hope Mills, put it.
Asked to give an example, she said, “I’d rather not say.”
William Ward Jr., a retired car dealer from Fayetteville, called himself a “staunch” backer of Trump. “Cause he’s got enough backbone to stand up to everybody,” said Ward, 67. “Those in Washington are spineless. And now America has no respect anywhere in the world.”
The passion for Trump at the rally was matched by the disdain for establishment Republicans such as Romney and Sen. Lindsey Graham, who have publicly called Trump a phony and unfit to be president.
“I think they’re going to alienate a lot of people who’ve always voted Republican,” said GOP voter Greg Seawell of Fayetteville, who is for Trump this year because “he’s going to get things done.”
The warm-up speakers at the rally also got in their licks at the GOP elders leading the “Stop Trump” drive. And the crowd joined in, booing every time Romney was mentioned.
“I have a word for Romney and Lindsey Graham,” said the pastor who gave the rally’s opening prayer. “You can’t move this mighty force called the Trump Train.”
Outside the Fayetteville coliseum – a venue most weeks for hockey games, concerts or high school basketball tournaments – Trump supporters were greeted by a small army of hucksters selling pro-Trump and anti-Hillary Clinton buttons, T-shirts, and more.
“Get your ‘Make America Great’ rally flags,” one salesman said. “All come with an eight-year guarantee.”
One woman hawked buttons that read “Hillary for Prison.” Another shouted: “We have ‘Bomb the hell out of ISIS’ right here!”
Before Trump showed up to speak, he spent time at a nearby theater taping a show with Fox News TV host Sean Hannity that aired Wednesday night.
In the coliseum, he gave his standard speech, referring to Cruz as “Lyin’ Ted” and Rubio as “Little Marco.” He repeated his past support for waterboarding in light of the barbarism of ISIS. And he reminded his supporters that, unlike all the other presidential candidates, he was “self-funding” his campaign.
He promised again to build a wall on the Mexican border. “Whose gonna pay for it?” he asked. On cue, the crowd roared back: “Mexico!” At one point, Trump accepted and showed off a homemade drawing of the wall as imagined by a man in the crowd who said he was from Peru.
Trump ridiculed the notion by some pundits and critics that asking his supporters to raise their hands and pledge to vote for him had echoes of Hitler’s Nuremberg rallies, when Germans raised their arms in salute to Hitler.
At first, Trump said he wouldn’t repeat the request at the Fayetteville rally because “they’ll say it was a horrible thing.” But when many in the crowd did it anyway, Trump said, “You want to do it?”