WATERVILLE VALLEY, N.H. — As Donald Trump took questions towards the end of a rally on an icy cold Tuesday night in this ski resort town in northern New Hampshire, a civil engineer who lives nearby stood and asked the candidate to explain the source of his patriotism.
The Republican front-runner started to explain: "I love the country," he said. "I have seen what it can do."
But Trump quickly acknowledged that he never served in the military. During the Vietnam War he received "numerous deferments" because he was enrolled in college and had a disqualifying "foot thing." Meanwhile, Trump said some of his friends did serve and some died.
"I always felt a little guilty," Trump said.
It was a rather human admission for a candidate who presents himself as flawless — always right, never wrong, and never apologetic or regretful about anything.
The rally crowd Tuesday night was much smaller than those Trump usually attracts, measuring in the hundreds instead of the thousands. But it was a sizable group given the rural location and the weather that night — an icy rain fell for hours outside and signs along the highways warned of dangerous black ice.
In these sorts of intimate settings, a different candidate emerges. Rather than screaming over the roar of a crowd, Trump's demeanor was softer, his rhetoric was more personable and family friendly. He didn't curse, and his attacks on rival candidates largely focused on their positions instead of their personalities — so he still went after Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) for being "very, very weak" on immigration but he didn't call him a kid or a baby, as he has in the past. And Trump didn't dwell on his hatred of the media.
Instead, Trump joked about the weather, doled out parenting tips and provided advice for Millennials. He directly engaged with young hecklers, defusing their comments rather than ordering them out of the rally. He acknowledged that many of the outlandish things he says might not be rooted in fact and said his support is so strong that he can get away with things other candidates cannot. Standing before this small crowd, Trump was less of a performer and more of a politician. It was a glimpse into how he might actually operate behind the scenes, away from the crowds that can egg him on.
Before the rally started, Nancy Dougenik said in an interview that as much as she loves and supports Trump, she wants to see him adopt a more professional, kind tone. More than 45 minutes before the rally was set to begin, Trump's staffers barred reporters from interviewing the hundreds of fans who braved the icy roads to hear Trump speak. Some reporters were eventually allowed 10 minutes in the audience under the supervision of individually assigned minders. Once those 10 minutes were up, reporters were ordered back into a "pen" in the back of the room.
"I know that he says it the way he sees it, and I think that's refreshing — but, you know, he needs to tone it down just a little bit," said Dougenik, 57, who lives in the valley, designs hotel interiors and once worked as a contractor for Trump. "Be a little bit more sensitive, just a touch. Focus on what's important and not on people's looks."
The crowd was vastly white and unlike many GOP crowds, included a healthy dose of young people. Trump seemed comfortable and relaxed. When a woman shouted: "Bernie 2016!" Trump just shook his head and said Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders is "finished."
As Trump complained that other countries, like Japan, expect the United States to protect it without offering the same level of support in return, a young man started shouting. Rather than ordering him removed, as Trump often does when interrupted by hecklers, the candidate said: "Stand up. What did he say? Go ahead. Speak up."
The young man seemed to be upset that the United States bombed Japan during World War II. The assertion pushed Trump to his most animated state of the night.
"Who did it first? Who did it first?" Trump said, speaking over the young man. "Didn't we have a thing called Pearl Harbor? …We bombed the hell out of them because they came at us first."
After the history lecture, Trump added: "I appreciate you being a, you know, an idealist young man but Japan attacked us. Japan would have never stopped except we were tougher and stronger and meaner and smarter than them."
Many of the questions Trump took from the audience could have been lifted from an afternoon talk show: What should high school and college students do to be successful? What's his one piece of advice to young people to ensure the country is great in the future?
Trump said he loved these sorts of questions. He urged the young people in the audience to do what they love, not what their parents want them to do, but suggested that they find something they love that's also profitable.
Trump bragged about his oldest daughter Ivanka's successful business career and told the crowd that he has a mantra that he tells his five children several times a week: "No drugs, no alcohol, no cigarettes."
"I would just drum it into them," Trump said. "The world is so tough and it's so competitive that you can put yourself as a child … at a disadvantage."
The final question of the night came from a young boy who asked what his life would be like with Trump in the White House.
"My hope would be that if I become president, your life will be much better than it would have been," Trump said, to gentle applause and a few cheers. "And I'll go one step further: If somebody else becomes president and they're not good — they don't do the job, they don't do what they have to do — your life will not be as good. It just won't be as good."