Luke Santos began waiting in the bitter cold outside the Pennichuck Middle School in Nashua, N.H., nearly seven hours before the Donald Trump rally began Monday night.
"I want to be right at the front. I want to get my sign signed, and maybe get a picture and just sort of meet The Donald," says Luke, after driving up with his stepfather, Joe Audette, from Cambridge, Mass. Luke, who is 12, says that he grew up watching Mr. Trump's reality show, "The Apprentice." "He's a winner and we need a winner as our leader," he adds.
Allen Gehring left Reading, Pa., at 4:30 a.m. to try to get into the Trump rally in Nashua, which was expected to turn away as many as it admitted. "The country needs someone who is a strong leader," says Mr. Gehring, a philosophy professor at Brescia University in Owensboro, Ky., who drove up with his brother, Jonathan. After the rally, they plan to drive down to see the Trump Tower in New York, "just for the fun of it."
Trump's latest overflow rally in the Granite State, just 44 days before the first-in-the-nation primary on Feb. 9, had the feel of a sold-out rock concert, with a line of hopefuls still wrapped around the school and down the driveway after the gymnasium hit capacity at 1,400.
To many of the locals, the crush of Trump fans, many from outside the state, is a bit baffling. Some say it's an entirely different crowd from the one that usually circulates through multiple candidate events in New Hampshire primary season.
"After a while, you get to know the people that attend such events," says state Rep. Doug Thomas. He and his wife, Liz, have already seen all the GOP candidates in the 2016 cycle at events in the state, most of them many times.
But at Monday's Trump rally – with a few exceptions – "we didn't recognize a soul," he says.
"People are excited about Trump," he adds. And for people outside the state, "this is about the only place people will get to see him this close."
And that's the rub. All that adulation doesn't leave much mental space for the hard-nosed questions and interactions that the New Hampshire primary claims as its heritage.
New Hampshire voters have long cultivated a reputation as hard to get. Here presidential hopefuls are forced out of their Washington bubbles or away from their entourages to court Granite State residents face-to-face in living rooms, diners, and town meetings, or on Main Street up and down the state.
Moreover, voters here like to see themselves as demanding clarity and consistency from candidates on policy issues – a cut above voters in other states, who may not have the opportunity to see candidates as up close and personal. Candidates who aren't up to that New Hampshire buzz saw are supposed to lose.
The atmosphere of uncritical devotion surrounding Trump, critics say, is at odds with the tough-as-nails image this state has cultivated over the years.
Even some at the Trump rally are irritated by the groupthink around Trump. Esther Price and her granddaughter, Gabrielle, have come to the Trump rally from Hopkinton, N.H., about 40 miles to the north of Nashua. They're both concerned about all the "active shooters" in the United States recently, especially in schools, and think that Trump is better than most politicians. "He will do something about it, that's what I think," Ms. Price says.
But Gabrielle, who is a senior at Hopkinton High School, doesn't like some of the comments she's heard about Muslims. "I care what's going on," she says. "I don't like some of the people he's gathered around him. I don't want to see racism and blind comments."
Two of Trump's rivals, Jeb Bush and Chris Christie, say that unquestioning support for Trump could be used to end New Hampshire's special primary status. The argument goes like this: If New Hampshire is going to go all weak in the knees for a celebrity candidate – without asking the hard questions – why should it expect to preserve its first-in-the-nation status?
“The question is: Will New Hampshire want to support a guy who might tarnish this extraordinary reputation that you have, which is first-in-nation status, where you make people walk through the hot coals each and every time they come, where you challenge people, where you help them learn how to get better at doing this," the former Florida governor said at a rally in Exeter on Dec. 12.
“New Hampshire is an extraordinary part of this process, and I don’t think Donald Trump’s going to survive New Hampshire to be honest with you, because I have too much confidence in you all," he said, as reported in The New York Times.
Trump hit back in his remarks in Nashua on Monday, starting with a reprise of how well he is doing in the polls and how poorly hard-spending candidates, like Mr. Bush, are doing in comparison.
"All the polls are fantastic," Trump cried out to the crowd at Monday's rally, citing a recent CNN poll that has Trump "as the dominant force" in the GOP primary field with 39 percent of the vote.
Then, he took an extended detour on a local theme – the decision of the state's largest newspaper, the Manchester Union Leader, to endorse New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie last month and an editorial on page 1 of its Monday edition denouncing Trump:
Donald Trump is due in New Hampshire this evening. He will attract a large crowd. The crowds, the media coverage, and the polls have led him and some pundits to believe that he will win the 2016 Republican presidential nomination.
That is an insult to the intelligence of Republican voters. Beginning right here in New Hampshire on Feb. 9, a great majority of them will disabuse him of that notion."
Since last month's endorsement, Governor Christie has moved from 5.3 percent support in the RealClearPolitics rolling average for the New Hampshire GOP primary to 11.5 percent. Trump reminded the crowd of Christie's woes at home, including Bridge-gate and the governor's embrace of President Obama after superstorm Sandy. But he saved the descriptives for the newspaper ("pile of garbage") and its publisher ("low life").
Yet he saved a carrot for New Hampshire voters who cherish the state's No. 1 status. Noting a "big movement to put you at the back of the pack," Trump said: "New Hampshire will always maintain its place if I win."
He did, however, get the date of the New Hampshire primary wrong. As he ramped up a closing appeal to vote "on Feb. 8," the crowd quickly corrected him by shouting out "Feb. 9."
Without missing a beat – or acknowledging an error – Trump continued: "You know what you should do on Feb. 8? Stand there.... It's so important that you get there early."