By Gabriella Borter and Alexandra Alper
WILDWOOD, N.J. (Reuters) – New Jersey supporters of U.S. President Donald Trump on Tuesday welcomed his first campaign rally in the state the same way they celebrate heroes from the New York Jets football team to native son Bruce Springsteen – with a tailgate party.
Braving cold weather in lawn chairs and under tents, they waved “Trump 2020” flags, decorated their dogs in pro-Trump bandanas and sported versions of his red campaign hat decorated with hair that evoked the Republican’s distinctive coiffure.
“It’s very family-like,” said John Fenlon, a 26-year-old parks and recreation employee from Monmouth County, who said he showed up at 5:30 a.m., about 13-1/2 hours before Trump’s expected arrival.
The Jersey Shore beach town of Wildwood, normally nearly empty in January, was abuzz with restaurants and hotels packed despite the chilly temperature.
Fenlon said the scene “sort of” felt like a tailgate party with two important caveats: “Not as many drunk people. … And there are not two teams. There’s only one team.”
Trump’s campaign rallies through the first three years of his administration have largely have been set in states he won in 2016. While he has been a regular visitor to New Jersey, which he lost by a 14-point margin, to stay at his golf club, Tuesday night’s rally was his first in the state.
Supporters lined the streets of Wildwood to greet the president’s motorcade as it approached the Wildwoods Convention Center, wrapped in blankets and chanting “U-S-A”.
Some started lining up as early as Sunday. Many who could not gain entrance to the convention center, which holds about 7,000, watched on big screens outside.
Trump was coming in part to reward U.S. Representative Jeff Van Drew, who left the Democratic Party last month in protest over Trump’s impeachment. Van Drew’s election as a Democrat in November 2018 marked a brief change in the conservative southern New Jersey district that had elected Republicans to Congress for the previous quarter century.
“Jeff had the guts to defy the left-wing fanatics in his own party and to stand tall in defense of our Constitution, our freedom and democracy,” Trump said before bringing Van Drew on stage.
The welcome was not uniform in a state where Springsteen, New Jersey’s beloved rock star, described Trump in a 2019 television interview as “somebody who I feel doesn’t have a grasp of the deep meaning of what it means to be an American.”
Progressive activist group Cape May County Indivisible held a “Trump: You are not welcome here” rally at the site but its presence was small.
Kevin Camp, a 27-year-old heavy equipment operator, said he was glad to see Trump visit his hometown, having “seen every Trump rally on TV”.
“This is the first one I’ve actually attended,” said Camp, who had spent two days waiting for the rally with his girlfriend, Heather Karrer, 25. “We live 10 minutes away and we never thought he would actually be this close.”
(Reporting by Gabriella Borter; Writing by Scott Malone; Editing by Bill Tarrant and Sonya Hepinstall)