Donald Trump

“Don’t worry — we’ll take our country back,” Donald Trump said to cheers at the Phoenix Convention Center. (Charlie Leight / Getty Images)

By Kurtis Lee
July 12, 2015

For Mark Ulatowski, the opportunity to see Donald Trump — brash, fiery and unapologetic as ever — was well worth the three-hour drive north from his home near the U.S.-Mexico border.

“He speaks to me. He speaks to a lot of us, because he speaks the truth,” said Ulatowski, a U.S. Army veteran who made the trek Saturday to see the real estate mogul turned reality television star, and now GOP presidential hopeful, denounce illegal immigration and castigate Democrats and fellow Republicans alike.

“It’s not just about him actually standing up and fighting against illegal immigration,” said Ulatowski as he stood in 100-degree heat alongside thousands waiting to enter the sprawling downtown convention center. “He says what politicians would never say, and that’s refreshing.”

A blunt-spoken hero to fans like Ulatowski, an exasperating blowhard to his many critics, Trump seized the spotlight in the Republican presidential campaign with his inflammatory comments about Mexican immigrants, and for more than two weeks has refused to relinquish center stage despite increasingly frantic pleas from GOP officials.

His denunciations of illegal immigrants and foreign competitors, from China to Mexico, have struck a chord with millions of voters — particularly older, white conservatives, polls indicate — who feel that most politicians have ignored their concerns. Their backing has propelled Trump to the front rank of the splintered GOP field.

At the same time, Trump’s words have harmed the party’s already tenuous efforts to attract minority voters, particularly Latinos, whom a Republican presidential nominee would need to win key states in the 2016 election. And the cautious and tentative comments that most of the other GOP candidates have made in response have highlighted how narrow a path the party must tread if it hopes to win the presidency — trying to reach out to minority voters while fearing to alienate the conservative whites who have formed the GOP’s base of support in recent elections.

In an appearance here that coupled fiery rhetoric with over-the-top displays of self-love — “I went to the Wharton School of Finance; I’m, like, a really smart person,” he declared at one point — Trump reinforced both parts of his image. He served up the sort of blunt talk that his supporters praise along with lines that critics cite when they label him an overweening narcissist.

His supporters, he said, were a “silent majority” who would be able to tilt the Republican presidential primaries, which will begin seven months from now, in his favor.

Phoenix Trump crowd

Supporters at Donald Trump’s Phoenix rally said they admired what they saw as his honesty. (Cheryl Evans / Arizona Republic)

Appearing with Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio, a fierce foe of illegal immigration, Trump did not limit himself to immigration issues. At various points, he took on President Obama (“You know I don’t use teleprompters like the president — I speak from the heart”), Caroline Kennedy, Hillary Rodham Clinton, Jeb Bush, NBC and Univision.

He offered few specifics for a campaign, other than to insist he’d do a better job than either Clinton or Bush — two candidates on opposite sides of the aisle who come from political dynasties that many of his backers see as symbols of an unresponsive political establishment.

That’s been enough to push Trump forward. In a Reuters-Ipsos poll released Saturday, Bush and Trump were tied at 15% for the lead nationwide in the Republican field.

The Reuters survey was the second national poll in recent days showing Trump with about 15% of the GOP vote and in the top tier of the crowded field. An Economist/YouGov survey showed Trump was one of the Republican front-runners and simultaneously its most widely disliked candidate.

To read expanded story, click here.