By MARTIN WISCKOL, CHRIS HAIRE, SCOTT SCHWEBKE and BROOKE EDWARDS STAGGS / STAFF WRITERS
Republican presidential front-runner Donald Trump brought his rousing message of political indignation to a full house at Costa Mesa’s 8,000-seat Pacific Amphitheatre on Thursday and was celebrated by the vocal crowd for providing an alternative to the status quo.
Within minutes of taking the stage to kick off his California campaign, Trump had the crowd on its feet chanting, “Build that wall.”
“Your crime numbers, they’re going through the roof, and we can’t have it anymore,” Trump told the packed venue at the OC Fair & Event Center. “We’re going to get our country back to a balance.”
Outside, sheriff’s deputies on horseback and in riot gear had to separate pro- and anti-Trump groups who shouted profanities at each other and nearly came to blows, with one side chanting “Dump Trump” as the other shouted, “Go back to Mexico.” After the rally ended, demonstrators jumped on a Costa Mesa police car, breaking out the windows and attempting to turn it over, as hundreds of people blocked the streets.
The tensions may be an early sign of what’s ahead for California in the weeks leading up to the June 7 primary, as Trump shifts his attention to the state that could prove the most crucial yet in his drive to be the Republican standard bearer.
“No state has suffered more from open borders than the state of California,” Trump told the crowd.
Trump’s choice of Orange County for his first major California event of the year is no surprise. While the county’s increasing ethnic diversity has contributed to Republican voter registration recently slipping below 40 percent, the GOP still has an 8-point advantage over Democrats, and the county continues its longstanding national reputation as a Republican powerhouse.
The county’s many wealthy donors also make it a national fundraising hub for GOP candidates.
Hours before the rally began, large crowds of flag-waving supporters and scattered sign-carrying protesters gathered at the fairgrounds.
Dawn Mayo stood on a concrete planter box in front of the fairgrounds’ Pacific Amphitheatre, surrounded by Trump supporters. She waved a blue “Make America great again” hat in her hand as she tried to lead the crowd in a “Go Trump!” chant that quickly died out.
“I’ll get them excited. Give me time,” said Mayo, 49, who grew up in New York and drove from San Diego on Thursday afternoon to attend the rally. “I love Trump. I want the energy to be up and people to be as excited as I am.”
“We don’t want you here,” part of the crowd chanted at Juan Rodriguez, who wore an anti-Trump shirt and waved a Mexican flag. The 20-year-old Bernie Sanders supporter said he came to the rally to exercise his First Amendment rights.
A young man in a suit and a red hat, carrying a flag, crept into the scrum and went toe to toe with Rodriguez. They screamed profanities at each other. “We want a wall to protect ourselves,” the man in the hat said.
“Trump won’t make anything better,” Rodriguez responded.
The atmosphere outside became increasingly tense as the rally’s scheduled start time approached.
About three dozen protesters marched toward Trump supporters waiting in line to get in. Sheriff’s deputies acted quickly – as both sides shouted slurs and profanity – creating a barrier between the two sides. Some officers were on horseback.
Those on the pro-Trump side were told to stand on the sidewalk.
“It was scary,” said Chelsea Rogers, 25, a Costa Mesa cosmetologist who came to the rally with her 16-year-old brother and who supports Trump. “If it gets any crazier, I don’t know what the police will do.”
On the anti-Trump side, Katrina Mendoza, 22, an Orange Coast College student, quickly walked away from the crowds as her friends urged her not to go back to the protest.
“A lady tried to hit me,” Mendoza said. “She called me disgusting and told me to go back to my country. But I was born here.”
Both sides continued shouting obscenities, with hundreds of protesters cordoned off in a portion of the parking lot.
Inside the amphitheater, the atmosphere more closely resembled a rock concert, with Elton John music blasting from loudspeakers as the crowd got ready for Trump to take the stage.
“Mr. Trump is not going to do this by himself. We are an army. Together, we can do anything,” said Rancho Santa Margarita Mayor Tony Beall, warming up the crowd.
An announcer over the loudspeaker instructed protesters to stay outside in a designated area. And he told Trump supporters they should not touch protesters.
Secret Service agents escorted one man out as he filmed the crowd with a hand-held camera. It wasn’t clear what triggered his removal. Agents also took a T-shirt deriding Trump with an expletive from another man.
Meanwhile, many people in the crowd were talking politics amongst themselves.
David Rose, 58, of Cypress, a lifelong Republican, said Trump represents “average Americans” and has the business acumen to run the country.
“He’s independent, not beholden to special interests and has had success running large organizations,” Rose said.
There appeared to be few Trump protesters inside the arena Thursday evening. But one, Gerardo Ramirez, 20, of Santa Ana said he “hates” Trump.
The Costa Mesa rally came two days after the Anaheim City Council declined to approve, on a 3-2 vote, a proposed resolution condemning Trump’s “divisive rhetoric” in the presidential race.
The council meeting was preceded by a clash outside between an estimated 50 pro- and anti-Trump demonstrators.
Five people were pepper-sprayed. Janet West, 62, of Long Beach was there to support Trump and knew one of the people hit by spray.
“We had dinner after and his eyes were all red,” West said. “It was awful.”
But West didn’t let that stop her from getting to Thursday’s rally five hours before it started along with fellow members of the activist group We the People Rising.
“You never think you’ll meet the future president of the United States,” West said.
While Texas senator Ted Cruz began laying the groundwork for his campaign months earlier, Trump remains the strong leader, favored by 46 percent of likely voters, according to Real Clear Politics aggregation of recent polls. Cruz is at 28 percent and Ohio Gov. John Kasich polls at 18 percent.
The 1,237 delegates Trump needs to secure the nomination in advance of the July convention is within reach. California’s 172 delegates – the most of any state – could determine whether he reaches that benchmark or must continue the battle at the convention.
Though Election Day is June 7, there is a more immediate urgency to connect with the state’s voters because mail ballots begin going out in 11 days.
If Trump falls short of the 1,237 majority, it would allow convention voting to proceed past the first ballot, and delegates no longer would be obliged to back their original candidate. Some Republicans, including Cruz and Kasich, are hoping for that scenario and the possibility that it will allow someone other than the controversial billionaire to become the nominee.
On Thursday night, Trump returned to familiar themes: closing the borders; bringing back American jobs; protecting the Second Amendment; and loosening restrictions on the U.S. military that he said put the nation at risk.
The speech was short on policy specifics and long on emphasizing his campaign successes so far, talking at one point about the strategy of Cruz and Kasich working against him.
“We are on the verge of doing something unprecedented,” he said. “They used to call it the silent majority. This is the noisy majority. We’re not going to take it.”
Amid the contentiousness outside, Jesseca Mendoza-Amin, who lives down the street from the fairgrounds, found a ray of hope.
She’s Latino, her husband is a Muslim who emigrated from Egypt when he was 4, and she doesn’t support Trump. Initially, she said, she was scared to go near the rally.
“But you know what? I had some great conversations,” said Mendoza-Amin, 34. Holding a sign that said, “We will pray for you,” she stood next to a man waving an LGBT rainbow flag.
The rhetoric “hits home for me,” she said. “This isn’t the world I want my girls to grow up in,” she added, explaining she has three daughters in high school.
But Mendoza-Amin said faith in humanity was buoyed by the generally polite attitudes of those who spoke to her.
“They’re voting for Trump and I’m not, but we could converse,” Mendoza-Amin said. “I even hugged a guy. It gives me hope.”
Contact the writer: email@example.com