In his gold-plated and sometimes garish quest to become the Republican Party’s next presidential nominee, Donald J. Trump has made Indiana’s presidential primary great again.
For the New York billionaire, the Hoosier state may be his last chance to wrest the race from fellow GOP candidates Texas Sen. Ted Cruz and Ohio Gov. John Kasich, as they try to force a contested convention in Cleveland come July. (“The Most Important Primary Is … Wait, Indiana?” mused The New York Times in a headline this week.)
Indeed, not since 2008’s Democratic Primary barn burner between then–Illinois Sen. Barack Obama and New York Sen. Hillary Clinton has the state’s late presidential primary meant so much—and the 2016 edition promises to be as hotly contested. Aside from California’s 172 delegates, Indiana, with its 57 delegates, remains one of the last tossup states left in the contest.
“I told my people I wanted to go to Indiana,” Trump told an estimated 3,000 attendees gathered in the half-full pavilion. “Indiana is going to be very important. I was talking to Billy O’Reilly backstage and I couldn’t hear him because you were making so much damn noise out here.”
At times before and after his speech, though, attendees seemed tired, and could be heard complaining about how much their feet hurt from standing for so long.
In a meandering and disjointed speech that lasted roughly 54 minutes, Trump sought to woo Hoosier voters, careening from bromides on national defense (“We have to build our military strong!”); jobs and the economy (the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement? “A disaster”); and immigration (“We’re going to build the wall!”) It was less “Morning in America” and more “Our country is going to hell,” as Trump put it.
Inside the pavilion, Trump supporters wore red Make America Great Again hats, lofted “The Silent Majority Stands with Trump” signs, and sported t-shirts with slogans such as “Hillary for Prison 2016.”
Aside from banging on the Indianapolis Carrier plant for recent layoffs, playing a track from Seymour native John “Cougar” Mellencamp (“R.O.C.K in the U.S.A”), and name-checking his “close friends” Steve and Tomisue Hilbert—the millionaire former CEO of Conseco insurance and his socialite wife, who live in Carmel—the Trump campaign rally featured all the local charm of a Costco and all of the musical nuance of a Friday night all-skate at a 1991 roller rink, with Elton John’s “Tiny Dancer” and The Rolling Stones’ “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” playing in a near-loop.
“You’re going to have a good football team this year,” Trump said, referencing the Indianapolis Colts but not mentioning the team’s name.
Protesters interrupted Trump more than a half-dozen times. One man held up a homemade sign charging that “Trump loves Brady.” (The other side said “Tom Brady sucks.”)
“I’m a little disappointed in Indiana,” said Trump. “I say ‘walk out,’ and [the protesters] walk out.”
More than an hour before the event began, a “U.S.A!” chant spread across the pavilion, just as Luciano Pavarotti’s “Nessun Dorma” reached a crescendo. Then, the “U.S.A!” chants gave way to “Build that wall!” It was the Trump campaign in a microcosm—very classy!, but with an undercurrent of nationalism (“It’s called America First, folks,” Trump said near the end of his speech.)
Earlier in the day, Gov. Mike Pence welcomed Trump at a private meeting at the governor’s residence. The governor has said he will meet with each of the three candidates ahead of the state’s primary.
“Governor Pence was pleased to welcome Mr. Trump back to Indiana and hear firsthand his plans for the country,” according to a statement issued by Kara Brooks, the governor’s spokeswoman. The statement also mentioned that “Trump requested the meeting with Governor Pence.”
The contours of the Indiana primary will take shape in the coming week as two much-anticipated measures of the contest are expected: A Howey Politics poll, expected next week, along with a survey of 150 Indiana political insiders conducted by Indianapolis-based consultancy Hathaway Strategies and the respected pollster Christine Matthews, who worked for former Gov. Mitch Daniels.
Looking out on his supporters gathered in the pavilion, Trump said he liked his chances here, and told them the vote they cast on May 3 will be the most important of their lives.
“I think I have a lot of voters in this room,” Trump said.
Photos by Darryl Smith