Donald Trump's juggernaut: Meet Friday night lights.
A candidate who loves the shock and awe approach to campaigning ratcheted it up a notch Friday as the Republican presidential front-runner rolled into a 40,000-seat college football stadium in Mobile, Alabama for what promised to be the largest rally of the 2016 campaign so far. The home of the University of South Alabama Jaguars wasn't quite full by the time Trump started speaking, but that didn't stop him from comparing himself to an evangelist.
"Now I know how the great Billy Graham felt," Trump exulted as he took the stage. The reference was to the 96-year-old preacher who was famous for his stadium rallies.
Though not the sell-out crowd Trump had been advertising, the turnout was a impressive given that it materialized on just two days' notice. The billionaire candidate arranged for free shuttle buses to ferry locals who didn't want to pay the $5 stadium parking fee, the Mobile Press-Register reported.
A crowd of what appeared to be mostly diehard Trump fans already was lined up all the way around the stadium in sweltering heat an hour before the doors opened. No one was more impressed than Trump himself.
Mallory Hayden, who carried a cardboard facsimile of one of her tweets that Trump retweeted,said she was raised a Republican in Texas but never cared much for politics until Trump got involved. The starting shortstop for the Southern Mississippi softball team, Hayden is planning to cast her first presidential vote next year. She said she likes Trump's business background, his seal-the-border policy and the fact he "won't back down."
The event was designed not only to showcase Trump's drawing power but to give the Republican front-runner a head start in the so-called "SEC primary."
Alabama is one of at least five southern states that have set March 1 presidential primary dates in an effort to draw the campaign—and the attendant press and policy-making attention—to the region.
While much of the Republican establishment has been openly distainful of Trump, in Alabama, at least one party local is convinced. As the crowd, which appeared to fill about half the stadium, waited for Trump, state Representative Ed Henry mounted the podium to announced that he had driven 5-1/2 hours from his northern Alabama district to give his endorsement to Trump. "Go Trump!" he shouted. And while he stopped short of delivering an endorsement, Alabama Senator Jeff Sessions, a Republican who shares Trump's get-tough views on immigration, joined him on stage briefly to welcome him "to my home town." Sessions said he is "really impressed" with Trump's immigration plan, adding:
"The American people want somebody in the presidency who stands up for them, defends their interests and the laws and traditions."
In a characteristically rambling speech, Trump inveighed against foreigners, both those who immigrate to the United States and those who trade with the country. He said China's currency devaluation would take away America's "jobs and our money" and worried that U.S. Ambassador Caroline Kennedy—whom Trump said he personally likes because she's a friend of his daughter, Ivanka—is being "wined and dined" and generally bamboozled by the leaders of Japan. And Trump continued to zero in on Mexico.
"I love Oreos! I'll never eat them again," he declared, regaling the crowd with a report about a decision by Nabisco to relocate one of its Chicago plants south of the border.
If elected president, Trump told the crowd, he will appoint billionaire financier Carl Icahn to oversee trade negotiations with China and Japan. He said Icahn agreed to assume the role two nights ago over dinner. "He would love to do it," Trump said.
Jeb Bush, who has raised more money than any of Trump's other rivals for the Republican nomination, launched a preemptive strike before the Trump rally, sending an email to Alabama Republicans that catalogued Trump's "many extreme liberal positions," including past support for abortion rights and gun control. "Trump's positions are out of step with the Alabama way of life," reads the e-mail, which the Bush campaign shared with reporters.
Trump's ability to pack in fans on a hot Friday night put him in the same league as Democratic crowd-pleaser Bernie Sanders, and far surpassed his Republican rivals.
In Columbus, Ohio, Bush got a much less friendly reception than Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal from the 3,600 activists attending attending the annual summit sponsored by Americans for Prosperity, the Tea Party organizing group founded by billionaires Charles and David Koch.
While Bush got mostly polite applause touting his record of cutting taxes and improving education, Jindal brought the crowd to its feet with lines such as "immigration without assimilation is invasion" and his call for Republicans to stand behind conservative principles.
Beverly Lung, 67, an insurance liability adjuster from North Carolina who is active in her local Tea Party group and in Americans for Prosperity, believes illegal immigrants are taking American jobs and refusing to assimilate into the culture. Bush "is not a conservative," she said, adding: "I like Mr. Trump. I like Mr. Cruz."
David Noll, active in a Tea Party group in rural Bedford County, Pennsylvania, was impressed by Jindal's speech, particularly when Jindal called for immigrants to assimilate and learn English. He also likes Cruz, Carson and Trump. "Anyone who's an outsider."
In Des Moines, Republican presidential candidate Ted Cruz drew a huge audience, at least by Iowa campaign standards: roughly 2,500 people turned out at a downtown ballroom for a "Rally for Religious Liberty," snagging copies of the Constitution and coloring books—both with the Texas senator on their covers—as well small U.S. flags.
The event featured, among others, business owners who’ve been sued for refusing to serve same-sex couples getting married. It also offered multiple sessions from the Newsboys, a musical group popular with social conservatives. Some were there to see Cruz, while others were perhaps more interested in the free show.
Ron Burkhart, 59, a heating and cooling salesman from Des Moines, was one of those who said he was more there for the music than Cruz. "I'm totally undecided," he said, when asked if he plans to support Cruz in the Feb. 1 Iowa caucuses that will start the nomination season.
(Contributing: William Leitch in Mobile; Mark Niquette and Zachary Mider in Columbus, Ohio; John McCormick in Des Moines, Iowa, and Kim Chipman in Chicago)