By JAYMIE BAXLEY | The Robesonian
FAYETTEVILLE — Thousands of Donald J. Trump supporters gathered Wednesday at the Crown Center Coliseum for a campaign rally that was disrupted at least 15 times by protesters.
The real estate mogul is the current frontrunner in the Republican delegate race. His appearance in Fayetteville marks 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 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 listed the 14 state primaries he’d won since February. The pugnacious billionaire 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, easily beating opponents Ted Cruz, who was stumping in Concord that day, and Mark Rubio.
“For the older guys and ladies of the party, the decorum and etiquette of Trump just doesn’t suit them,” said Bo Biggs, a local Republican and longtime observer of Robeson County politics. “But I think that the greater goal of defeating the Democratic nominee is going to bring everybody together. As we narrow the field, I believe that we’re all going to come together
To conservatives who bristle at his boorish persona, Trump said he “could 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 group, can’t recall a time when a candidate has caused so 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 again to “get rid of Obamacare and Common Core.” He also promised to “take care of veterans” and to provide troops with “the equipment that they need.”
Leaving little doubt about his position on guns, Trump argued that the Nov. 13 terrorist attacks in Paris “would have played out differently with 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.”
Trump walked on stage shortly after 7 p.m. as the Alan Parsons Project’s “Eye in the Sky” blared from the coliseum’s sound system. The 69-year-old spent much of the next hour dismissing protesters and admonishing the news media — occasionally hitting 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. “I’m telling you, these people are the biggest liars in the world.”
Videos circulating on social media show a 78-year-old Trump supporter sucker-punching a black protestor at the event. A female protester wrote on Facebook that she was bombarded with threats and sexually charged 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 didn’t weaken his support of the candidate.
“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 just 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 later today. Bernie Sanders announced plans this morning to hold a campaign rally in Raleigh.