In a week where the economy and jobs moved to the forefront of this year’s presidential campaign, Republican candidate Donald Trump brought the political frenzy to Wilmington on Tuesday.
“What’s going on in this country is insane. It’s time we have to make change, real change, not Obama change,” Trump said to thousands gathered inside University of North Carolina Wilmington’s Trask Coliseum.
The visit, Trump’s first campaign stop to southeastern North Carolina, came a day after the GOP nominee spoke in Detroit to pitch his economic plan. Democratic contender Hillary Clinton also plans to deliver her economic platform this week – also in Detroit.
During his roughly hour-long speech in Wilmington, which will be followed by another appearance in Fayetteville Tuesday evening, Trump referenced a number of points from his plan.
“This thing I’m doing is cutting taxes big league, especially for the middle class, especially for businesses,” he said.
When Trump took the stage shortly before 2:30 p.m., Trask Coliseum’s seats and floor were packed at the facility, which typically holds up to 5,200 for UNCW basketball games. Many more people waited outside, unable to get into the at-capacity event.
All of the tickets made available for the event were snatched up in less than 24 hours after the Trump campaign opened them up online on Sunday. Campaign officials said they didn’t have an estimate on how many tickets had been given out.
Traffic crawled along South College Road as cars filled up the campus parking lots Tuesday morning. Ticketholders, sweltering in the noontime heat, waited for an hour or more depending on when they arrived to shuffle along the snaking line into Trask.
A seller hawked “Make America Great” hats to those waiting. An informal surveyor – for his own interest and not an official pollster – went down the line to ask people what’s the most important election issue to them: next Supreme Court judge, national debt, security, taxes were among the answers shouted out.
UNCW student Garrett Leatherwood said Trump’s pledge to reduce the tax rate for some Americans to zero has stuck with him. Leatherwood, who usually catches Trump’s speeches on YouTube, said he showed up Tuesday to see the campaign up close.
“I’ve always wanted to see him speak live,” he said.
After a lineup of opening speakers including Gov. Pat McCrory, Leatherwood got his wish along with a throng of cheering supporters as Trump took the stage following an introduction by former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani.
As he highlighted in his speech to the Detroit Economic Club on Monday, Trump hammered away on trade deals like NAFTA and the Trans-Pacific Partnership.
“I’ve seen the carnage that NAFTA has caused,” Trump said, warning that companies in North Carolina and other states negotiate moves outside the country, aided by the government’s trade agreements.
“If you move, you’re going to pay a 35 percent tax on every single air conditioner the moves across our borders,” he said.
With Trump’s focus on jobs and business policies, Clinton also is using her appearances to attempt to poke holes in his plan.
This week, the Clinton campaign leaned on analysis from Sen. John McCain’s former campaign economic advisor and Moody’s chief economist Mark Zandi to bolster her platform.
“North Carolina could add 325,000 jobs under Hillary Clinton’s economic plans, while it could lose 106,000 jobs under a Donald Trump presidency,” Clinton’s campaign declared Monday.
“The contrasting vision between Sec. Clinton and Donald Trump could not be more stark,” Alan Krueger, former chairman of the White House Council of Economic Advisers, said in a conference call with reporters.
Margaret Lockard, owner of Air Control Experts in Wilmington who attended Tuesday’s rally, said she is particularly in favor of Trump’s stance against the Affordable Care Act and his pledges to repeal and reverse it if elected – a move he claimed Monday in Detroit would save 2 million jobs.
“I can’t afford Obamacare. The company can’t afford it,” Lockard said.
Lockard said she has been a Trump supporter since the Republican primaries and backs his economic policies as a small-business owner.
“Small businesses, we’re not going to be able to stay in business if we’re going to continue the way it is,” she said.
Protesting during the speech was light – only one interruption took place. Outside before the rally started, about 40 protestors had gathered by noon across from Trask’s entrance, including Elli Klein, who said she questions the details of Trump’s economic plan.
“I’m not sure that Trump has any real policies. He has his own business plan that serves him personally,” she said, sporting a Clinton volunteer T-shirt and anti-HB2 pin. “Democrats up and down on the ticket as far as the state and local [races], we want to expand businesses that are appropriate for the area.”
Klein, who served as a Clinton delegate during the Democratic National Convention this summer, said she saw Clinton speak in 2008 in Wilmington as a presidential primary hopeful and would like to see her return to Wilmington this time around.
“This is a whole different election cycle,” she said. “The 24/7 news cycle – there aren’t big events, there are constant events.”
For Trump, North Carolina – a closely watched battleground state this year – might be back on the docket.
“We’re going to come to North Carolina a lot – got to win it,” he said.