FAYETTEVILLE — Thousands of Donald Trump supporters gathered Wednesday at the Crown Center Coliseum for a rally that was disrupted at least 15 times by protesters.
The pugnacious multi-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 and Sampson counties 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 drove from Lumberton to attend the rally. “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.
“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. “
That’s part of the candidate’s appeal, according to Biggs.
“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 the 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 outfit troops with “the equipment that they need.”
After voicing his support of 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. as the Alan Parsons Project’s “Eye in the Sky” blared from the coliseum’s PA. He spent the better part of an hour dismissing protesters, many of whom voiced their support of Democratic candidate Bernie Sanders, and admonishing the news media.
He occasionally 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.
Multiple videos circulating on social media show a 78-year-old Trump supporter sucker-punching a young protestor. A female protester said in a Facebook post that several male supporters bombarded her with violent and sexually explicit insults.
“It was incredible,” she said. “The hate and straight-up racism that filled that coliseum makes me want to cry.”
Lowe says the protests did little to change his position on 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 was set to visit a Durham high school Thursday. Sanders will hold a rally today in Raleigh.
Staff writer Jaymie Baxley works for The Robesonian in Lumberton, a sister paper of The Sampson Independent. He can be reached at 910-416-5771 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.