PHOENIX — Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump coasted on the controversy dogging the early weeks of his campaign to draw thousands of people eager to hear his fiery anti-immigration rhetoric this weekend.
In his first major campaign swing since announcing his candidacy last month, Trump completed a two-day tour Saturday that featured a series of at times rambling speeches, jumping from topic to topic while nonetheless energizing rancorous crowds as large as any of his rivals have attracted. Lines of people wrapped around the block as Trump began to deliver his remarks here Saturday afternoon, his campaign estimating that as many as 10,000 people had registered to see him speak.
“The silent majority is back, and we’re going to take the country back," Trump bellowed after the crowd erupted into chants, "USA! USA! USA!"
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Trump basked in the crowd's adoration at the event, which drew thousands more people than expected, some traversing state lines to see the billionaire real-estate mogul in action. The fervor forced organizers to relocate the venue to accommodate the demand.
The presidential candidate has seen a sudden boost in the polls, but the first weeks of Trump's campaign have also been marred by controversy over his offensive remarks about Mexican immigrants, and his refusal to back down. Trump only further fanned the flames on Saturday by agreeing to headline the event hear, which featured another controversial figure, Sheriff Joe Arpaio of Maricopa County.
“He's getting a lot of heat,” Arpaio acknowledged of Trump during brief remarks before Trump's appearance. “I know one thing, one trait that he has -- he will never surrender."
Trump’s speech in Phoenix, however, was devoid of the most controversial refrains that he has repeated in recent weeks — that Mexican immigrants were drug dealers, killers and rapists — perhaps a sign that calls for moderation from party leaders were taken to heart.
In fact, Trump said he was not only in favor of legal immigration, but he wanted to see the process become faster and easier. “I love legal immigration. I love it. I think it’s great,” he said. But to deter illegal immigration at the U.S. border, Trump suggested that the U.S. should somehow charge Mexico $100,000 for every person who entered the country illegally.
Trump even went populist at times, very subtly suggesting that conservatives need to care more about income inequality and provide for the nation’s poor.
“We got to take care of everybody,” he said. “Get used to it, conservatives.”
Trump called fellow GOP presidential front-runner Jeb Bush out by name on several occasions, calling him “terrible” while condemning the former Florida governor’s stance on both immigration and Common Core.“I don’t see him as a factor,” Trump said. “I know it’s the Bush name, but in all fairness [it’s] not the greatest. Jeb Bush, I don’t get it.”
Trump let many of his featured guests take the lead when it came to heated anti-immigrant rhetoric. Trump has centered his campaign around a recent flash point of the country’s disjointed immigration laws in light of a fatal shooting in San Francisco that was allegedly committed by an undocumented immigrant with a long criminal rap sheet. Several parents who say their children were killed by undocumented immigrants joined Trump during every stop, first in California, then again in Las Vegas and Phoenix on Saturday.
"People came into the country illegally and killed their children," Trump said during the first campaign stop Friday in Beverley Hills. "And it's a very, very sad thing what's happening with our country ... and nobody wants to talk about it."
Trump’s message was well-received by many in the crowd Saturday who saw him as a straight-talker and savvy businessman who didn't shy away from controversy in order to prove a point.
“We need someone that will go and say the things that are hard to say and he’s saying it,” said Arizona resident Richard Vanek. “Some things he says may come out and seem wrong to people and that might be because he’s frustrated and angry, too — just like anyone else.”
Groups of pro-immigrant rights activists rallied outside the conference center, the tension at times as hot as the sun glaring down on the lines of event attendees waiting in line to see Trump. Hecklers made their way inside the event, holding up signs and disrupting Trump's speech before being hauled away by security.
Trump shrugged the protest off.
"I wonder if the Mexican government sent them over here," Trump quipped. "I think so…"
“The man is totally at a loss. I am an immigrant. I have never been arrested. I am the product of immigrants,” said Mario Zarco Dunkerley, who rallied outside the event for hours. “That is what is our future is made of.”