PORTSMOUTH, N.H.—The biggest question mark hanging over Donald Trump’s candidacy is whether his supporters will actually show up to vote.
In a strong indicator of the grassroots devotion to his cause, upwards of a thousand people came to see the Republican front-runner here Saturday during one of the worst storms of the winter.
Other candidates have canceled events when the weather – a wintry mix that led to black ice and almost no visibility on the roads – was not so bad.
Though the size paled in comparison to some of Trump’s rallies during fairer weather, it would have been a strong crowd in normal conditions for any of his rivals.
“Portsmouth is known as a Democratic area, so this gives me a good feeling about his strength in the Seacoast area,” said Ryan Tripp, 21, a Trump supporter who works in sales at the Toyota dealership that hosted the event.
“It is dedication,” added Jay Krupp, 46 of Portsmouth. “You hear everybody on TV saying that we might come to the events because it’s fun and he’s an entertainer. But if we come in this, we’re coming to the polls!”
Krupp, who lives in Portsmouth, brought his 11-year-old son. He said Trump’s “uplifting” speech strengthened his support after flirting with Florida Sen. Marco Rubio and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie in recent weeks.
“Rubio is a smooth talker. After seeing him, my opinion went down a little bit because that’s what he is: a smooth talker,” said Krupp, who works for an education software company. “Trump’s not as smooth in his delivery, but I like the message little bit more. Christie’s always been a straight shooter. I think Trump took his position in this campaign as being the straight talker.”
The rally was sponsored by former senator Scott Brown, who has hosted barbecues at a barn in nearby Rye, N.H., for almost all the Republican candidates for president. Brown said organizers put this event on at the auto dealership because of the Secret Service’s concerns about security.
Trump asked Brown when he took the stage if he drew a bigger crowd than any of his previous guests. Brown said yes.
“Look at all these people in this snow storm,” Trump boasted. “But it all doesn’t matter unless we win. … In New Hampshire, we’re leading by like 20 points. But go to vote. Because if we don’t vote, we’re all wasting our time.”
Mackenzie Robinson, a waitress from Wakefield, got Trump to sign her “Hillary for Prison: 2016” T-shirt. She explained that she and other supporters will be sure to vote because they are so worried about what will happen if he does not prevail. “If we don’t get out and vote, we’re screwed,” she said. “Our country is screwed.”
Executive councilor Joseph D. Kenney, who serves in a powerful job in New Hampshire, is neutral. But he thinks Robinson and the polls are right as the first-in-the-nation primary on Feb. 9 approaches.
“He’ll win the New Hampshire primary, no doubt,” said Kenney, who thinks Trump’s level of support is stronger than Pat Buchanan’s in 1996 or John McCain’s in 2000, when each won the state. “New Hampshire is built for Trump.”
Saturday’s event is part of a broader tactical shift for Trump. For months the flamboyant billionaire has maintained a steady schedule of large rallies across the country, where thousands and thousands have crammed into community centers or filled stadiums to hear him speak. Trump has begun incorporating more-traditional “retail” campaign stops into his schedule in recent days, addressing a crowd of just 275 of Friday at the Living History Farms, a small community venue in Urbandale, Iowa. He later stopped at a nearby Iowa Pizza Ranch, where he met with volunteers.
Overwhelmingly, Trump supporters at the Portsmouth event – without prompting – echoed their candidate’s attacks on Sen. Ted Cruz. And they uniformly defended The Donald against the litany of attacks being leveled by Cruz.
Trump, who has questioned Cruz’s eligibility to be president, criticized him for his comments about “New York values” and for not reporting to the Federal Election Commission personal loans that he and his took out during his 2012 Senate bid.
“He finally went off the wagon a little bit and went a little crazy,” Trump said of Cruz. “He obviously didn’t want the voters to know that he’s totally controlled lock, stock and barrel by Citi Bank and Goldman Sachs.”
John Fiorentino, an independent from Litchfield, N.H., said he was split between Trump and Cruz — until Trump began raising questions about Cruz’s failure to properly disclose the two million-dollar loans.
“If someone loans you a million dollars, I’d be very appreciative,” he said.
Fiorentino acknowledged that he was not sure whether Trump was a serious candidate when he first announced his candidacy but has come to take him seriously.
“I was skeptical at first, but he’s speaking about things that people are worried about,” he said. “He’s saying what a lot of politicians don’t want to say — or can’t say because of who they owe.”
Cora Grondin, a retired cook in Portsmouth, described herself as a lifelong Democrat who plans to vote for Trump.
“He’s the only one who can fix things,” the 68-year-old said. “I don’t listen to the attacks. He doesn’t have to hide who he is. We know.”
Grondin said she considered supporting Rubio but soured on him. “He’s a good speaker but so was Obama and look what he did to the country,” she explained. “We need somebody different. Trump’s not tainted like a governor or a senator.”
Unfortunately for Trump, many of his fans at Saturday’s event came to see him from out of state, especially Maine and Massachusetts.
Donald and Ann Muir, from Winchester, Mass., called Trump “energizing” and “inspiring.” While Ann has been supporting Trump for months, Donald only committed his support to Trump after Thursday’s GOP debate. “I feel like Trump really distinguished himself from the field. He established himself to have executive presence,” he said. “I don’t think the others really have that, especially the Senate candidates.”
Jim Boyle, who owns the Toyota dealership that sponsored the event, likened Trump to Ronald Reagan.
“Everyone said he wouldn’t make it through the summer,” said Boyle. “Well, Mr. Trump is still standing, still dominating and still tweeting. … Ignoring him will not work.”
To be sure, Trump brings out passion on both sides. About a dozen bundled-up protesters stood in the snow holding signs. During the event, one heckler interrupted Trump to yell, “You’re a bigot.”
Trump kept his speech shorter than usual so that he could get to a tea party convention in South Carolina. As he spoke, the snow stopped and the roads got plowed.
“If I don’t get the hell out of here soon, I’m never going to be able to take off,” he said.
Brown reassured him it would work out.
“Absolutely, it is, Donald,” the former senator said. “We’ll shovel your plane out.”
Folks in this area are not as religious as in Iowa. But they support the New England Patriots with religious-like fervor. Trump, who is friendly with Patriots quarterback Tom Brady, said he knew it would be much harder to build a crowd during the team’s evening playoff game against the Kansas City Chiefs than during the snow storm.
“Just to see if you were really Trump fans, I was going to keep you here beyond 4 p.m.,” he said.