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Why a billionaire Yankee like Trump is beloved in Alabama

The Trump rally in Mobile – expected to be the largest primary event thus far, with an expected 35,000 people in attendance – started at a venue designed for 1,000 people.

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Republican presidential candidate businessman Donald Trump speaks during a campaign town hall Wednesday at Pinkerton Academy in Derry, N.H.

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Mitt Romney, a rich Yankee, failed to connect with Southern voters as he sought the presidency in 2012. But Donald Trump, another very rich Yankee, is getting the jubilant reception of a long-lost cousin as up to 35,000 people are expected to pack a Mobile, Ala., college football stadium Friday evening to hear the hotelier and Republican frontrunner “tell it like it is.”

In a matter of days, what had been planned as a get-together at a 1,000-seat facility has gone through three venue changes, finally landing at Mobile’s largest public arena, Ladd-Peeples Stadium, which can hold up to 50,000 people. Mr. Trump on the radio Thursday drew comparisons between himself and his supporters in Alabama: “We all work hard, we think hard, and we love the country.” He added about the explosion of interest around his Mobile appearance: “This is a real happening.”

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To be sure, what will likely be the biggest primary campaign event so far is part celebrity-fueled entertainment by a man famous for his hotel deals and “Celebrity Apprentice” TV show.

But there also may be more substantial reasons for Trump’s emergent Southern popularity. Not the least of among these may be his growing popularity among particularly white Southerners, whose concerns about the economy and immigration, they often complain, are sidelined by both liberal and conservative elites in Washington. A News-5/Strategy Research poll conducted in Alabama last week has Trump with 30 percent of support among GOP voters, with former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush in a distant second place. At the very least, Trump’s early popularity in Alabama is notable because of the failure of Mr. Romney to win any of the five Deep South states in 2012 – the first time that had ever happened to a Republican candidate in the modern era.

“Trump is similar to Romney in some ways in terms of him being a rich guy from the north, but my sense is that he’s very popular down here because his message is very different from Romney’s,” says Richard Fording, chair of the political science department at the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa. “He’s more than a candidate, it’s almost like a movement that he seems to be tapping into.”

In part because it began as almost an undercover event that blew up into a major shindig, the Trump Mobile rally will likely be raucous and news-making. Twitter blew up Friday as excited ticket holders began streaming toward Mobile.

“They are coming to watch the latest ring master of the circus that is often American politics,” writes Charles Dean, a political columnist in Alabama.

But while it’s still very early in the primary season, Trump’s surprising Southern success is troubling for a wide field of candidates, who see their chances of gaining any sort of foothold on the race rapidly dwindling. Candidates such as Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal and Sen. Ted Cruz have followed Trump’s lead on several issues, including immigration and getting rid of birthright citizenship.

Moreover, as several Southern states have pushed up their primary dates to form what some are calling an SEC primary, after the powerhouse college football conference, connecting here early on could pay off big later. Next year, states such as Alabama and Georgia are expected to wield far more influence on the primary season than in years past.

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“What Trump's doing, clearly, is not just trying to hold a rally in Mobile,” writes Philip Bump for The Fix, a Washington Post political blog. “He's trying to show strength across the entire Deep South. If his grandiose expectations come true – which they have a recent habit of doing – his point will be made.”

While the Queens-born Trump may have been born with a silver spoon in his mouth, his take-no-prisoners rhetoric and willingness to offend has given many Southerners a sense of straight-talking kinship – unlike the tepid reception the far more careful Romney received.

For one, Trump’s tough talk on illegal immigration – including his proposal to deport all 11 million undocumented immigrants currently estimated to be in the country – touches a live wire in Alabama. In 2011, the state passed the harshest immigration law in the country, much of which was later dismantled by federal courts.

“People in Alabama speak what they think,” Jonathan Gray of Strategy Research told John Sharp of the Alabama Media Group. “We tend to offend people with what we say. We don’t mean to do that. We’re very polite and very Southern-charmed people, but we’re very opinionated in the South and we don’t have a problem flexing those opinions.” 

Mr. Fording suggests that Trump’s emotional appeal may fade in the South once primary season begins in earnest. For one, Trump supports some facets of gun control, including more checks on assault-style weapons. That tends to be a non-starter for many Southern conservatives.

“There are just too many people in the center, independents, who will look at him more intellectually than emotionally, and eventually he’s going to have to be accountable for his policy details,” says Mr. Fording.

“That being said,” he adds, given the excitement around the Mobile event, “someone is going to have to emerge from the pack if [the Republicans] are going to keep Trump from running the table.”