It was an uncommon visit by an uncommon candidate.
Republican presidential frontrunner Donald J. Trump rallied supporters at the Delaware State Fairgrounds in Harrington Friday. It was a rare moment in the political spotlight for the First State, whose small population and late primary make it an unlikely host for big political rallies.
But this is no ordinary election. And Trump is no ordinary candidate.
The real estate magnate delivered an hour-long speech in his usual free-wheeling style. He touched on familiar themes: political incompetence, corruption, trade, jobs, and, of course, winning.
“We’re gonna start winning again,” Trump told the crowd. “We’re gonna win with our military and we’re gonna knock the hell out of ISIS.”
He also slammed his chief Republican rival, Texas Senator Ted Cruz, referring to him as “Lyin’ Ted” on several occasions. He did a brief impersonation of Senator Bernie Sanders, D-Vermont, and made multiple references to “Crooked Hilary,” his pet name for Democratic frontruner Hilary Clinton.
He earned rapturous applause when speaking of his plan to build a wall on the United States-Mexico border, at one point leading the crowd in a chant of “build the wall.” In all it was a buoyant rally, with nary a trace of the disruptions that have marred past Trump events. Perhaps most notable is the fact that the rally happened at all.
Delaware will send 16 delegates to the GOP convention in Cleveland. Members of the Delaware delegation will be bound to vote for the winner of Tuesday’s primary election, at least on the first ballot at the Republican convention.
And for the first time in recent memory, those 16 delegates may matter. Trump is scrambling to get the 1,237 delegates needed to secure the GOP nomination on the first ballot. If he doesn’t, Delaware’s pledged delegates–and those of many other states–will be free to vote for the candidate of their choosing.
Some who turned out to see Trump came just for the rare chance to see a leading presidential candidate in a tightly contested rate.
“My whole adult life no presidential candidate has ever taken the time to come to Lower Delaware to allow us the opportunity to even sit in on something like this,” said Robin Ray from Harrington, Delaware, who said she was deciding between Trump and Hilary Clinton.
The rally was relatively calm, with no organized groups of protestors visible. Midway through the speech, two people held anti-Trump signs and pointed them toward the media pen. The couple were promptly removed without a struggle.
The Trump campaign did not offer an official count of the crowd size. Multiple emergency personnel, including a state fire marshal, estimated that between 4,000 and 5,000 people showed up to hear Trump speak. The majority stayed through the entire speech, and many thronged Trump afterward in hopes of scoring an autograph.
At the beginning of his remarks, Trump namedropped two shuttered automobile plants in Delaware and cited the number of people in Delaware’s Kent County on public assistance. He then spoke of similar situations across the country, blaming weak leadership for the economic woes he described.
“The manufacturing jobs are being stolen,” Trump said. “Our jobs are being taken. We’re losing on every front. Our country doesn’t win anymore.”
He also made the case that he’s the candidate to take on Hilary Clinton in the general election, bragging of his landslide win in the recent New York primary. And he may have reason for continued confidence, at least in the Delaware contest.
Though little reliable data exists on the Delaware GOP race, a recent poll by a group called Gravis Marketing showed Trump with a 37 point lead on his nearest rival.
That lead is due to voters like Jim McElheny, a retiree who spends summers near Rehoboth, Delaware. McElheny said he loves Trump’s blunt speaking style and believes the New York billionaire has the disposition to get things done.
“He stands up,” said McElheny, a firm Trump supporter. “I hate these Republicans who just bow down.”
Others said they attended the rally to learn more about the candidate. Mark Herpich of Magnolia, Delaware, who wore a shirt bearing the logo of the region’s main municipal workers’ union, said he didn’t trust the media portrayal of Trump and wanted to evaluate the GOP pacesetter for himself.
“I want to hear what Trump has to say,” Herpich said. “The media keeps lying about everything.”
Herpich does worry, however, about Trump’s off-the-cuff comments and propensity to “put his foot in his mouth.” Paul George from Harrington said Trump’s more outlandish statements were simply a way to draw attention in a crowded primary. He expects Trump to become “more presidential” in coming months. George said he’s supporting Trump because the businessman doesn’t rely on money from outside groups.
“I think what appeals to me honestly is the fact that he’s not taking any money from corporate interests,” George said.
Trump’s remarks were preceded by a short speech from State Senator Colin Bonini, R-Dover South, who is running for Governor and has endorsed Trump. Bonini said he doesn’t agree with Trump on everything, but believes he’s the best guy to fix a “broken” government. He also thinks Trump’s insurgent candidacy is evidence that politicians are disconnected from their constituents.
“People in my business need to hear this message,” he said.