Donald J. Trump took the stage in Hartford and leaped into his greatest hits Friday, sounding notes of patriotism, suspicion of Wall Street, disdain of the media, pity for protesters. He promised a wall on the U.S-Mexico border, an end to the heroin epidemic, an economic recovery in Connecticut and the defeat of Ted Cruz this summer and Hillary Clinton in November.
Every line rocked the Connecticut Convention Center, where Trump’s campaign manager, Corey Lewandowski, estimated the crowd at 5,500 people in a hall with a capacity of 8,800. There were at least another 1,000 who did not make it inside to greet the front runner for the Republican presidential nomination, said Brian Foley, the deputy police chief.
Lewandowski told The Mirror that Trump, whose focus is the northeast for the next 10 days, would return to the state at least twice before the GOP primary on April 26, when voters in Connecticut, Delaware, Maryland, Pennsylvania and Rhode Island go to the polls. New York’s primary is next week.
“Folks, we need a change,” Trump called out. “We need a real change. We don’t need Hillary Clinton, who is a real disaster. We don’t need Bernie Sanders.”
Trump took the stage precisely at the advertised starting time of 7 p.m. and riffed for 30 minutes. The exception was when he consulted notes on Connecticut’s loss of jobs and its stagnant wages.
“Let’s talk trade, because Connecticut more than anything else, boy do you need jobs,” Trump said.
He needed no notes to talk about the protesters who popped up a half-dozen times to interrupt, the first one five minutes after Trump walked on stage. The crowd had been prepped to drown them out with chants, but not to touch them.
“There’s one of the dummies now,” Trump said, as the first protester interrupted. Boos turned to cheers and laughter as the candidate said, “There is nothing more fun than a Trump rally, right?”
Foley, the deputy police chief, said about 30 people involved in a half-dozen interruptions were ejected, but no arrests were made in the hall or on the streets. Mayor Luke Bronin said he expected the rally to cost the city about $45,000, primarily in police overtime.
Trump, who once owned an estate in Greenwich, said he was well-acquainted with Connecticut’s economic troubles, including General Electric’s decision to relocate its headquarters from a suburban campus in Fairfield to downtown Boston.
“I lived in Connecticut. I have so many friends in Connecticut. I love Connecticut. But I know, I know we have problems. We lost General Electric. How do you lose General Electric?” Trump asked. He paused, then added, “I mean, it doesn’t help you folks much, at least we lost them to the United States. It’s one of the few, to be honest.”
Lewandowski watched the rally from behind the TV riser, happy the boss once again was hewing to a playlist that touches on the same themes: A promise to fix a broken economy and keep America safe.
“Talking about jobs, man,” said Lewandowski, who recently learned authorities would not pursue a misdemeanor charge against him arising from confrontation with a reporter. “It’s always about jobs.”
And there’s always more.
Trump dismissed his primary rival for the nomination as “Lyin’ Ted,” promising that he would reach the magic number of 1,237 delegates before the final primary in June. Clinton was clueless, Sanders a Communist.
Trump said he was campaigning on his own dime, which is largely true, according to campaign finance reports.
“But these other guys, they come up a whole different route. Just so you understand, they are totally controlled by the special interests, by the lobbyists,” Trump said. “They’re totally controlled by people that put up their money.”
He held up the press for special ridicule.
Trump, whose media coverage has been estimated at being worth the equivalent of $1.9 billion in advertising, complained that TV cameras focused on disruptions, not his supporters.
“The reporters, these are the most dishonest people you’ll ever meet. These are really bad people, I want to tell you that,” Trump said. “They are not getting the story out. They don’t tell the story.”
The crowd gathered early.
At the front of a long line to enter the rally in the exhibition hall of the Connecticut Convention Center was Terry Lambert, a retired Bridgeport police officer and an early believer that Trump was more than a reality TV star.
“I knew June 16th when he announced, I knew he was gonna win,” he said. “Everyone said I was nuts, I was crazy. ‘No way,’ they said. ‘He’s a circus. He’s an act.’ He’s the real deal.”
Lambert, who attended a Trump rally in Worcester, Mass., brought his daughter, saying he wanted her to “see history in the making.” He said he viewed Trump as the only candidate who respects police officers.
The first supporters arrived before noon. Doors opened at 3 p.m., an hour before scheduled, lessening the potential for conflict. There were minor street debates, but no serious incidents reported before the rally.
But hundreds of protesters blocked Trump supporters as they tried to exit, chanting, “Racists go home!”
The crowd yelled back, “USA! USA! USA!”
Clifford Carlson of Bristol, a Trump supporter, debated before the rally with college students protesting in a designated area outside the center. Austin Sullivan, a Tunxsis Community College student supporting Bernie Sanders, called Trump “a salesman” who is “taking advantage of insecurities and fears.”
The audience included the curious, such as Rep. Kurt Vail, R-Stafford, who is not committed to a presidential candidate. He said he was heartened by the voter interest.
“I just think it’s nice, whether it’s Bernie Sanders or Donald Trump, they’re getting these huge crowds,” Vail said.
So far, Trump is without major endorsements in Connecticut, where a recent Emerson College poll showed him supported by half of likely GOP voters in a three-way race with Cruz and John Kasich.
The leaders of the Republican minorities in the General Assembly prefer Kasich, the Ohio governor and former congressman who is running second here with 26 percent, even though he is last in race for delegates. Cruz had 17 percent.
House Minority Leader Themis Klarides, R-Derby, said she understands the attraction of the unscripted billionaire businessman.
“I certainly had my concerns about him in the beginning — and I still do with some of the things he says,” said Klarides, who did not attend the rally. “But I understand his strengths as far as being a straight talker and a business person and somebody who doesn’t really take any crap from anybody. I respect that in a person.”
Voter interest is high, as measured by the 66,324 new voter registrations since Jan. 1, with Democrats adding 30,815 voters and Republicans attracting 14,355. More than 20,000 have registered as unaffiliated.
Connecticut’s primaries are closed to unaffiliated voters, who can enroll in a party up to the day before the primary. As of Wednesday, there were 417,823 registered Republicans, 735,473 Democrats and 792,415 unaffiliated voters.