Donald Trump

Bloomberg Politics

William Leitch
Aug 21, 2015 – 5:03 PM PDT

(Updated 8:18 a.m. ET)

Donald Trump’s juggernaut: Meet Friday night lights.

A candidate who loves the shock and awe approach to campaigning ratcheted it up a notch Friday as the Republican presidential front-runner rolled into a 40,000-seat college football stadium in Mobile, Alabama for what promised to be the largest rally of the 2016 campaign so far. The home of the University of South Alabama Jaguars wasn’t quite full by the time Trump started speaking, but that didn’t stop him from comparing himself to an evangelist.

“Now I know how the great Billy Graham felt,” Trump exulted as he took the stage. The reference was to the 96-year-old preacher who was famous for his stadium rallies.

Though not the sell-out crowd Trump had been advertising, the turnout was a impressive given that it materialized on just two days’ notice. The billionaire candidate arranged for free shuttle buses to ferry locals who didn’t want to pay the $5 stadium parking fee, the Mobile Press-Register reported.

A crowd of what appeared to be mostly diehard Trump fans already was lined up all the way around the stadium in sweltering heat an hour before the doors opened. No one was more impressed than Trump himself.

Mallory Hayden, who carried a cardboard facsimile of one of her tweets that Trump retweeted,said she was raised a Republican in Texas but never cared much for politics until Trump got involved. The starting shortstop for the Southern Mississippi softball team, Hayden is planning to cast her first presidential vote next year. She said she likes Trump’s business background, his seal-the-border policy and the fact he “won’t back down.”

The event was designed not only to showcase Trump’s drawing power but to give the Republican front-runner a head start in the so-called “SEC primary.”

Alabama is one of at least five southern states that have set March 1 presidential primary dates in an effort to draw the campaign—and the attendant press and policy-making attention—to the region.

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