HAMPTON, New Hampshire -- When Donald Trump took his brash brand of conservatism to this summer beach town on Friday night, it wasn’t your typical New Hampshire political event. It felt a lot more like a rock concert -- complete with passion, cheers, and adoring fans. When Trump took the stage, he met boisterous applause, hoots and hollers, and a crowd clamoring to their feet to give him standing ovations as he blasted “political correctness.”
Trump's rally at Winnacunnet High School in Hampton drew an international media following and more than 2,000 people who spilled into two separate large rooms.
“It’s the summer of Trump,” he announced. “You know they’re calling it the summer of Trump? I said I haven’t done anything cause I haven’t won. If this all happens and I don’t win … it starts with winning the primaries.”
Trump took his moment before the large crowds in the nation’s first primary state to boast of his unique independence from financial backers and bash a few of his Republican opponents. “Nobody attacked me like Senator Lindsey Graham. And he went from 1% to nothing,” he said.
Carly Fiorina was also a target. “Carly was a little nasty to me. Be careful Carly,” Trump warned. “I can’t say anything because she’s a woman and I don’t want to be accused of being tough on women .... I promised I wouldn’t say that she ran Hewlett-Packard into the ground.”
Trump even took a veiled swipe at fellow Republican presidential candidate Chris Christie, joking that “You go over to China, there are bridges all over the place. It makes the George Washington Bridge look small -- and I wouldn’t use the George Washington Bridge for political purposes.”
Hillary Clinton wasn't spared either when Trump responded to a question from reporters earlier in the evening about whether Al Gore or Joe Biden would jump into the race. “I think that they’ll be probably involved at some point because there’s a lot of pressure on Hillary right now, it’s been brutal," he said. "It’s been brutal for Hillary and I think at some point she’s perhaps not going to run, she’s gonna have to end her campaign.” He added, “I don’t see how she can run, I think she’s got much bigger problems than running for office.”
But the one theme Trump returned to repeatedly was the nation's infrastructure.
When he was asked by a questioner whether he would push an American mission to Mars, the audience reacted with applause as he made a face and responded, “I wanna rebuild our infrastructure first, OK?”
“I go to Dubai. They have an airport. It’s like magic,” Trump regaled the audience. “It’s the most incredible place you’ve ever seen. And you go home and you land at LaGuardia.
Perhaps the biggest round of applause came as Trump maintained, “you don’t want a politically correct president,” a theme that resonated with most of the attendees at the rally.
Trump’s past controversial comments didn’t seem to worry many people here, including Teresa “Cooky” Sheehan, a retired accountant from Hampton. “I don’t care about him saying anything off the wall or anything like that. Just about what he’s going to do. Politicians are bought and paid for.”
“Every time I turn on the TV I see them lying. It makes me angry. It’s been happening for the last 8 years since Obama,” said Jared Wilson, a construction worker from Hampton.
As the main event raged on in the auditorium, a packed overflow room waited anxiously down the hall for the real estate mogul to make his appearance. Flanking the empty podium, two televisions and speakers blared out his message live. Many whispered “wow” amongst themselves, nodding and cheering at each new idea that Trump introduced. When he entered the room after his main address, the majority of the few hundred people were on their feet, passing him copies of "The Art of the Deal" as he exclaimed, “Wow! Some crowd!” To one man standing on a chair, Trump asked him to get down and then joked that he’d sue the candidate if he fell.
He departed to the same cheers that greeted him. One twenty-something attendee returned from the rope line to report that he snapped a selfie with Donald Trump, grinning.
Trump's Friday night bash in Hampton wasn't quite the small, intimate town hall, restaurant meet-and-greet, or local gun shop stop that Republican voters here are used to in the August before the primary.
“Trump is not really running a political campaign, a traditional campaign. He is running a PR campaign,” said Republican strategist Jamie Burnett, Mitt Romney’s former New Hampshire political director in 2007-2008. “When he does pop into a state, he usually comes into a very controlled, spectacle event."
New Hampshire, the nation’s first primary state, is famous for putting presidential candidates through a rigorous test. Candidates are repeatedly grilled with detailed policy questions from voters about issues at every stop they make. But Trump – who is leading the GOP field in New Hampshire polls – has focused much of his campaigning lately on national television and media appearances, and has not done as many of the small events that the state is known for as some other Republicans have.
“There is kind of a celebrity component to his candidacy and maybe in New Hampshire he has got to put in some time to do the retail politics,” said Brian Murphy, the chairman of the Rockingham County Republican Committee, where Trump will be Friday. It’s part of Murphy’s job to give his constituents many opportunities to see all of the candidates. “Everyone who is going to vote in the primary is going to have to meet their candidate. The Republican Party in New Hampshire is geared toward that – to get these candidates in front of as many people as possible.”
Trump has made 16 stops in New Hampshire, according to NECN's candidate tracker -- far fewer than candidates like New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who has made 68 stops in the Granite State, businesswoman Carly Fiorina (60), Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul (53), South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham (43), or even former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush (25).
Voters like Mike Stevens, a military contractor from Hudson, N.H., who recently attended the Paul town hall in Nashua, say they are looking for someone a little more serious. “It feels like all of this is leading up to his next reality TV show,” he said. Stevens likes what Paul and Fiorina have to say, but is still undecided about who he will vote for. He sympathizes with Trump’s strong dissatisfaction with Washington, D.C., he but can’t envision him as president. “I like a lot of the ingredients but I don’t like the soup.”
Trump has a commanding lead in the New Hampshire polls. The latest RealClearPolitics average has him at 24.5%, Bush at 11% and Kasich at 10%. And while the latest poll from The Boston Herald/Franklin Pierce University suggests that Trump’s lead could be slipping -- putting him at 18%, Bush at 13%, and Kasich at 12% -- he's still the front-runner.
Trump’s team in New Hampshire says the response they’ve heard from people around the Granite State so far has been “phenomenal.”
“I must have heard at least 15 times today that the thing people like about Trump is he says what we are all thinking but can’t bear to say,” said State Rep. Fred Doucette, the co-chairman of Trump’s New Hampshire campaign. “He’s a straight talker. He says what he thinks and thinks what he says and sticks to it and tells the truth. People are sick of the same old same old. They are sick of the politicians. We are ready for a businessman to run this country.”