FAYETTEVILLE — Thousands of Donald Trump supporters gathered this week at the Crown Center Coliseum for a rally that was disrupted at least 15 times by protesters.
The billionaire has been solidified in recent weeks as a front-runner in the Republican delegate race. His appearance in Fayetteville marked the closest a presidential contender has traveled to Robeson County this election cycle.
“There are things he’s saying he’s going to take care of that no other politician will even touch on,”said William Lowe, a Trump supporter who traveled from Lumberton to attend the rally on Wednesday. “He’s going to be a force to be reckoned with. That this guy can fill up an arena says a lot about him.”
Fans cheered as Trump rattled off the 14 out of 20 state primaries he’s won since February. He played up his ties to North Carolina, where voters will hit the polls next week.
“I have a lot of people who work for me in North Carolina,” he said. “I’m probably the only presidential candidate that’s ever came here who can say they employ a lot of people in North Carolina.”
Trump received 53 percent of the vote in a straw poll conducted Tuesday at the Robeson County GOP Convention. Ted Cruz, who was stumping in Concord that day, garnered 38 percent of the vote. Mark Rubio received 7 percent of the vote.
“For the older guys and ladies of the party, the decorum and etiquette of Trump doesn’t suit them,” said Bo Biggs, a Republican and longtime observer of Robeson County politics. “But I think that the higher goal of defeating the Democratic nominee is going to bring everybody together. As we narrow the field, we’re all going to come together.”
In response to criticisms surrounding his boorish persona, Trump told the crowd that he “can be the most presidential person you’ve ever seen.”
“I’m not a professional politician,” he said. “I’m running against people who have run for office their whole life. “
According to Biggs, that’s part of the candidate’s appeal.
“Trump has obviously tapped into frustrations,” he said. “He has a huge draw of people who are very upset with what’s going on in Washington.”
Brenda Pope, president of the Robeson County Republican Women organization, says she can’t remember a time when a GOP front-runner has caused as much division within his own party.
“He has really awakened the sleeping portion of the Robeson Republican party,” she said. “This is something I’ve never seen before and hopefully it’s going to turn out good.”
Trump hit familiar beats during the rally, vowing once again to “get rid of Obamacare and Common Core.” He also promised to “take care of veterans” and to supply active troops with “the equipment that they need.”
Standing behind the Second Amendment, Trump argued that the recent massacre in Paris “would have played out differently with the bullets flying in the other direction.”
“Paris has some of the toughest gun laws in the world, folks,” he said. “We have a mental health problem [in America] and we have to solve the mental health problem, but we need to protect the Second Amendment.”
The candidate walked on stage shortly after 7 p.m. with the Alan Parsons Project’s “Eye in the Sky” blaring from the coliseum’s PA. He spent the better part of his hour at the podium dismissing protesters, many of whom voiced their support of Democratic candidate Bernie Sanders, and admonishing the news media.
Sometimes he managed to hit both targets at once.
“Tomorrow you’ll read in the paper: ‘Trump has protests,’” he said as a protester was being ejected from the coliseum.
Lowe says the dissenters did little to weaken his support of the real estate mogul.
“What I saw going on was a bunch of people wanting their 15 minutes of fame,” he said. “I didn’t hear them say anything other than ‘look at me; put me on TV.’”
Trump closed the rally with a promise to “bring jobs back to North Carolina.”
“We’re going to be a brilliant country, not a smart country,” he said. “We’re going to keep winning; you’re going to love North Carolina and you’re going to love your president.”
Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton is set to visit a Durham high school today. Sanders announced plans this morning to hold a rally in Raleigh today.
Jaymie Baxley can be reached at 910-416-5771 or by email at [email protected]