After a rocky campaign stretch, it was good to be home for Donald Trump.
The brash billionaire, whose campaign manager was all over the news again Thursday after he was cleared of a minor battery charge, was clearly enjoying himself Thursday night before a raucously supportive audience at a GOP fundraiser just a mile south of his eponymous Trump Tower.
“It's great to be back in New York,” Trump told the audience of 800 guests at the $1,000-a-plate New York State Republican Gala at the Grand Hyatt hotel in Midtown Manhattan.
It was the biggest crowd of guests in the decades-long history of the party’s annual fundraising event, said Jessica Proud, spokeswoman for the state GOP.
“I love speaking at the Grand Hyatt—because I built it,” Trump said.
His 23-minute speech was packed with stories about his real estate ventures and what he described as his magic touch for succeeding where others had failed to rehabilitate a struggling city. He began in the mid-1970s, when the Grand Hyatt was built during a fiscal crisis.
“The city was dead,” Trump said, recalling the front page of the Daily News in 1975 that turned President Gerald Ford's refusal to send aid into an outrage: “FORD TO CITY: DROP DEAD.”
The crowd of Republicans gave Trump nothing but encouragement, laughing at his jokes and cheering when he described New York as a “symbol of American strength throughout the world.”
In a dig at Cruz for deriding “New York values” during a debate months ago, Trump turned to his notes—a rare move—to celebrate the city's honesty, straight talk, hard-working spirit and high energy.
“It’s the energy to get things done,” Trump said. “If Jeb Bush came here I’m telling you he’d have much more energy. He should move to New York.”
Recalling the 9/11 attacks, Trump heaped praise on police and firefighters.
Outside, the police were kept busy by hundreds of chanting protesters, a common sight wherever Trump goes. According to Reuters, 11 people were arrested and some protesters raided the mezzanine of the hotel with a banner that read, “NYC Rejects the Party of Hate.”
Inside, there was no sign of the tension between Trump and New York GOP Chairman Ed Cox, who hosted the event. Trump and some of his most ardent supporters, such as Buffalo developer Carl Paladino, have characterized Trump’s candidacy as a rebellion against the GOP establishment embodied by Cox, a son-in-law of former President Richard Nixon. Their relationship was strained in 2014 when Trump considered running for governor, but Cox refused his request for an unfettered, primary-free path to the nomination.
Cox had hoped his party’s fundraising gala would attract the presidential candidates this year, and for the first time in its history, they lured every candidate in the race.
At the event, Kasich picked up an endorsement from former New York Governor George Pataki. But in contrast to Trump, Pataki had to speak over the clatter of dishes and murmurs of conversation as people talked over his 16-minute speech.
Cruz got little reaction when he opened his speech by saying, “I will tell you I haven’t built any buildings in New York City, but I have spent my entire life defending the Constitution of the United States.”
Several minutes into Cruz's speech, many in the audience were flat-out ignoring him, conversing loudly at their tables.
Trump is almost certain to crush his rivals in the New York primary on Tuesday, which can help end a bad spell for his campaign. He lost the Wisconsin primary, faced distracting reports of infighting among his advisers, tried to calm nerves after a series of shifting stances on abortion, and struggled to gather loyal delegates in state and regional conventions.
He’s polling at higher than 50 percent with GOP voters here, more than 30 points ahead of Kasich, who’s at 22 percent in the RealClearPolitics rolling average of polls, and Cruz, who’s at 18 percent.
But instead of coasting to the nomination on his victories in primaries and caucuses, Trump is scrambling to build a competitive delegate-hunting machine by spending money and hiring fresh national political talent. Meanwhile, Cruz continues to shoehorn his most loyal supporters into delegate slots, trying to increase the odds of a contested convention, his only realistic chance of winning the nomination.
Still, Trump senior adviser Ed Brookover voiced confidence Thursday.
“Our path to 1,237 I think is pretty clear,” Brookover told reporters after a strategy-planning session with seven of Trump’s congressional backers at a meeting at Washington’s Capitol Hill Club. “We start next Tuesday in New York with a huge win. We go to April 26 with a huge victory.”
“I think we’re on a glide path.”