Dallas (CNN) The ultimate showman ripped up the political rule book again Monday — two nights before what is shaping up as a fiery showdown with his rivals at the CNN Republican debate at the Reagan presidential library in California.
Donald Trump walked boldly onto the stage at a sports arena in Dallas, which was transformed into a rally of thousands of fervent supporters, and reinvented the time honored tradition of candidate debate prep ahead of Wednesday’s crucial showdown.
“I hear they are going after me. Whatever. Whatever,” Trump told roaring fans, many wearing “Make America Great” ball caps, T-shirts emblazoned with his likeness, and even one woman in a paper dress with multiple photos of the billionaire.
Trump is not the kind of candidate who spends days locked behind closed doors, fine tuning soundbites and policy jabs, put downs and zingers before a crucial debate.
While most GOP White House hopefuls have light schedules going into the debate, the billionaire real estate investor — who repeatedly tells people he has only been a politician for three months — does things his way. He doesn’t seem worried about keeping his best material under wraps, either. Instead of pouring over debate briefing books, Trump basked in the adulation of the crowd in the public glare where he thrives, using his Texas stop to further his efforts to tap the anger and hostility of many conservative Republicans heading into the 2016 White House race.
It was red meat rhetoric for a red meat state. Trump was boastful and acidic, mocking his rivals, slamming the media, and even envisioning his own inauguration as president in January 2017 as he ridiculed the time it is taking contractors to repair the corroded dome of the iconic U.S. Capitol.
“I like the idea of the scaffolding being down when they are swearing me in, I do,” Trump said, at the rally, which almost had the feel of one of the party’s national conventions — all before a single vote is cast in the nominating race.
If he emerges triumphant from the debate, when he will face Republican rivals who are increasingly concerned about his long run at the top of the polls, Trump’s show of bravado in Dallas will add more intrigue to the contest.
But if he stumbles, or gets goaded into a gaffe that raises doubts among voters about whether he is really of presidential timber, pundits are sure to criticize him for putting on a pugnacious show in Dallas rather than quietly doing his debate homework.
In the arena that’s home of the Dallas Stars and Dallas Mavericks sports franchises, which was mostly packed, apart from seats at the very top of the 20,000 capacity arena, Trump ran through the routine he will use to parry attacks on Wednesday night, as his hour-long monologue was punctured by vibrant standing ovations and chants of “USA, USA”.
The biggest cheers, in border state Texas, came over his vow to build a wall on the southern frontier and to make Mexico pay for it — even though many pundits and opponents says it’s an unworkable, expensive idea.
“We have to build a wall. And a wall works. All you have to do is go to Israel and say how is your wall working?” he said, referring to the barrier between the Jewish state and the Palestinian territories on the West Bank.
Trump also complained that rivals like retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson and former businesswoman Carly Fiorina were being praised for “surging” in the polls when he was really the one setting the pace. He took shots at conservatives like George Will and Karl Rove and pundits who had doubted his campaign would ever get off the ground.
“One person — a real loser — said ‘he’s a clown.’ Now they are saying, ‘How are we going to stop this guy?'” he said. “I haven’t heard the word clown in a while.”
Trump’s rhetorical style, which often comes across as rambling and disconnected on television, works better in a crowd. He leans over his lectern, in his patriotic red, white, and blue, suit, shirt and tie combo and really seems to be engaging his audience.
On Monday night, he was clearly preaching to the converted.
“He is our generation’s Will Rogers,” said Denise Wood Davenport, of Bogata, Texas, referring to the famed vaudeville performer, cowboy and popular philosopher.
Asked what she liked best about Trump, Davenport said: “His arrogance. In Texas, we like arrogant men.”
Cheryl Grounds of Corsicana, Texas, said she most identified with Trump because of his hard line on immigration, complaining that her district was filled with undocumented migrants.
“We are catering to them — we need to make them learn our language. We are having to learn Spanish,” she said from her vantage point in the bleachers overlooking the arena.
Many people in the crowd said simply that Trump was talking to them in the kind of blunt, and politically incorrect language they use themselves — in a way that no other politician dared to do.
“He is willing to say what he thinks — he is not worried what people think about him. He says what a lot of us are thinking and just keep to ourselves,” said Stephanie Hunter from Dallas.
Asked whether she was worried that Trump lacked in-depth knowledge of foreign policy that could expose him as president, Hunter argued that strength was more important.
“It is not about foreign policy. It about attitude. We are a great nation. Speak up and let’s get back to what we were,” she said.
Another Trump fan, Juliann Wood, added: “He is a flashback to Reagan. Obama talked about impossible dreams. Trump is reality — in your face.”
For those in the crowd, Trump and Texas seemed to be made for each other. There is no reliable polling of the delegate-rich state in the GOP primary so far, but the billionaire seems likely to challenge local hero Sen. Ted Cruz in the early running.
And his decision to choose Dallas to hold a rally, days before the debate, was a sign of the political astuteness that many pundits thought Trump and his political operation lacked when he set out to fight for the GOP nomination.
Longtime Texas Republican consultant Bill Miller said Trump was sticking a rhetorical thumb in the eye of his foes by staging such a huge event two days before the debate.
“Texas is one of the most conservative states in the nation. He is coming down here — he is packing the place. They are loving him.,” Miller said, adding that Trump may also have sought to tame criticism that he is too moderate to appeal to hard core Republicans.
“He is being attacked as too liberal or too New York. He is saying, ‘I don’t see you packing out the American Airlines Center.’ It’s a masterstroke,” he said.
Trump’s campaign manager, Corey Lewandowski, told CNN Monday that there was no doubt his boss would be ready to go on Wednesday night, despite criticism from rivals that he often barnstorms through public appearances to disguise his shaky command of details.
“Mr. Trump will be prepared for the debate in California. I think you will see Donald Trump come prepared to discuss the issues,” Corey Lewandowski told CNN.
“You have a number of candidates on the stage who have held elective office and have been involved with national foreign policy and national defense spending issues,” he said. “We will let those candidates decide how they are going to prepare for their own debate. We are only worried about the campaign we are involved with, which is the Trump campaign.”
Still, despite his bravura performance in Dallas, Trump will be under intense pressure on Wednesday, because as the front-runner he is the candidate every rival would like to topple.
“If he gets up there and he flubs questions in front of millions and millions of voters … that I think could be a problem,” said Obama’s former communications director and current CNN senior political analyst Dan Pfeiffer on Monday.
But Pfeiffer added in a reference to Trump’s repeated defiance of the laws of political gravity: “Everything else that would be a problem for any other candidate has not been a problem for Trump to date, so who knows?”