Hilton Head, S.C. - Donald Trump held his final campaign rally in 2015 the same way he staged his first of the year: A hodgepodge of boasts, bluster and brawn that delighted another huge crowd of supporters.
If the frontrunner’s fans have made anything clear over the last year, it’s that he’s not going anywhere. He’s endured in the polls despite one controversial comment after another, from vows to force Mexico to pay for a massive wall along the border to a call to ban Muslims from immigrating to the U.S.
He’s charted his own course with little help from his party, few big name endorsements and scant advertising. And, by year’s end, polls showed him well ahead in national contests, though rivals were showing signs of strength in some of the early-voting states.
“You can’t let people push you around,” he said of his attacks on former President Bill Clinton’s after his wife, Democrat Hillary Clinton, accused him of a “penchant for sexism.” He called the reporters in the back of the room “crooked” and “dishonest.” As for his "low-energy" establishment Republican opponents, he said, they were hardly worthy mentioning by name.
If anything, the taunts that stoked outrage from his opponents and the media have only galvanized his supporters, many of whom said they will stick with him no matter what.
“Could any other candidate garner this much attention? Certainly not on Hilton Head,” said Rich Hodsdon as he surveyed the crowd of thousands awaiting the candidate. “Trump, he just keeps bouncing back. He’s not afraid of the press or anything. They’ve tried and tried to destroy him. And he seems to be bulletproof.”
And Trump, who lobbed attacks at Clinton, Republicans and the media during his event at a Hilton Head Island resort, seemed to relish in his support in the South.
“This is a movement folks,” he said to a crowd of more than 2,000 people – with another 3,000 waiting outside. “No matter where we go, it’s packed.”
The campaign, which he launched in June, is facing fresh assaults. Texas Sen. Ted Cruz’s steady rise in the polls in Iowa has raised questions about Trump’s organization in the caucus state and divided some conservatives who lean toward both contenders.
“You can’t lose with either candidate,” said Brian Holland, a Guyton, Ga. resident who drove in with his wife Wanda to hear Trump. “But I’m just not 100 percent sure Trump is for me yet.”
And establishment candidates, including New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, are trying to ratchet up the pressure in New Hampshire, where the publisher of the influential Union-Leader published an editorial comparing him to the dimwitted villain in “Back to the Future.”
Losses in either of those two states – after months of leads - could threaten his frontrunner status. Trump seems to acknowledge the risk. Campaign finance records show he’s spent about $217,000 in advertising so far, but he promises a new wave of millions in spending in the early-voting states.
“I’ve spent no money, and I’m number one. And others have spent hundreds of millions of dollars and they’re not in the race,” said Trump.
Trump’s rally, held at a luxurious Westin resort on upscale Hilton Head Island, was a different kind of venue for the billionaire, whose two events in Georgia were held at a Norcross convention center and Macon’s graying coliseum.
But even the undecided gravitated toward the spectacle, lining up early Wednesday for hours before the event.
“I’ve been telling people the circus is in town,” said Bruce Tuttle, a Hilton Head real estate broker who was at the rally.
He’s split between Trump, Cruz and Florida Sen. Marco Rubio. But he said it would come down to one factor when he casts a ballot in less than two months.
“There’s a tidal wave of frustration right now,” he said. “And for me, that means anybody but Hillary.”
Trump, for his part, said he’ll accept nothing short of a victory in 2016.
“If I don’t win, I’ll consider this a total and complete waste of time.”