By David M. Shribman
WDRB Contributor from the Pittsburgh-Post Gazette
NORTH CONWAY, N.H. -- Ordinarily there's hardly anyone in the parking lot of the Lobster Trap restaurant on West Side Road here at 9 at night. A Mount Washington Valley landmark for decades, its big draw is its celebrated early-bird special, a lobster roll with clam chowder and a choice of french fries, onion rings or coleslaw for $14.95 before 6 p.m. This is not a late-night town, and the restaurant is set back on a dark mountain byway that leads from an imposing bare rock cliff and a lakeside state park.
But Thursday night the parking lot was jammed at 9, and in the cozy bar, sunny on summer afternoons and toasty on stormy winter days, the lights were blazing, the tables were cleared away and the chairs were arranged in neat rows. It was debate night in a New Hampshire town, the repartee was blasting on two giant televisions, the drinks were flowing, and the Donald Trump campaign was paying for the wings, pizza and stuffed mushrooms.
This Trump debate-watching party attracted some three dozen voters, many of them Donald devotees who whooped in approval at his ripostes, some of them intrigued by his rise but not fully convinced, the remainder simply curious. This was a North Country crowd, men and women devoutly serious about presidential politics -- and about their role as participants in the first presidential primary.
As the debate wore on, Trump wore well.
"I like a lot of what he says," said Miles Waltz, a retired physician. "He speaks his mind and is honest. Now the other candidates are picking on him, maybe because he's been doing so well."
With a surge and a stage, Trump was irrepressible.
"He's a businessman, not a lifelong politician," said Billy Cuccio, who, with his mother and sister, operates the restaurant. "He doesn't say what's politically correct and doesn't apologize for it. Everyone else is worried about how it comes out. He doesn't care."
Not caring about responsible rhetoric, speaking his mind, having business perspectives and values -- this is the tripod on which the Trump campaign stands, and on which the Trump movement is flourishing. The billionaire businessman has emerged as the Reggie Jackson of Republican politics, the straw that stirs the GOP drink. On television Thursday and on the stump here and in Iowa, his rivals struggle for air as Trump sucks the oxygen out of the room.
In Thursday night's debate he broke every rule of rectitude, ridiculed a senator with bad hearing, made politically incorrect statements about political correctness, flouted his wealth and the power it and his political contributions have brought him -- a performance at once entertaining, extemporaneous, enervating and, for his competitors, infuriating.
"He's not your typical politician," said Al Zilinskas, a Lutheran clergyman. "He does not exude verbal diarrhea. He speaks his mind and is refreshingly honest."
When Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky said that the billionaire businessman "buys and sells politicians of all stripes," Trump answered, "Well, I've given him plenty of money."
The North Conway crowd lapped it up like a dish of Cuccio's lobster saute (not available with the early-bird special and not for the calorie-conscious).
Already it is unmistakably clear to Republican candidates, strategists and operatives that Trump is a formidable force, not an ephemeral phenomenon. Until now, Trump was a sideshow, amusing but ultimately harmless. Thursday and for the coming weeks, he is at center stage.
And at the center of his appeal is that he -- even more so than Ronald Reagan, once regarded as an implausible president -- has no political experience, nor any respect for politics.
"We don't need another politician in the White House," said state GOP Rep. Joshua Whitehouse, who is Trump's New Hampshire coalitions director. "Here's someone who is willing to stand and deliver, not just make empty promises."
Trump stood out in an evening of prepared attacks and readied responses, warmed-over appeals to Republican hot buttons, safe attacks on Barack Obama and ritualistic references to former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, whom former Gov. Mike Huckabee described as being "high in the polls, but doesn't have a clue about how to govern."
Thursday night there were more laughs -- and more cringes -- in two hours of Republican debate than there have been in two terms of Obama's presidency. The president sweats the details. Trump ignores them. From him there were no details. No matter.
"He is action-oriented," said Zac Mercauto, the Trump vice chairman in this county and a veteran of the Mitt Romney 2012 campaign, "and all the politicians down in Washington are all talk and no action."
Nor would anyone in this assemblage of the alienated be dissuaded by the remarks of former Hewlett-Packard chief Carly Fiorina, who in the earlier consolation debate -- provided for the candidates who didn't make the top-10 cutoff in the polls -- argued that Trump had "changed his mind on amnesty, on healthcare and on abortion."
But it wasn't what he favored before that matters; it's what he is saying about the politics of now. And about the politicians who prosecute it: "stupid."
Yet here in a county that Romney took over Obama by only 230 votes, not everyone found appeal in Trump's performance, though many saw the power of his movement.
Across town, David Van Note, a veteran political activist who worked for Democratic candidates John Glenn, Bruce Babbitt, Michael Dukakis, Bill Clinton and Al Gore, said he saw something very different in the Trump performance. "He's a flake, sure, but he is not spouting the same tired rhetoric we have heard forever," he said, "and the United States is sick of the usual baloney."
"He's entertaining," says Anne Kantack, an independent voter. "But he is mean-spirited and appeals to people who are anti-immigrant, anti-poor and anti-minority. He's appealing to the baser instincts."
Base instincts, perhaps, but what the North Conway crowd -- supporters and detractors alike -- may have witnessed Thursday was the consolidation of a powerful new base in Republican politics.
"He offers something different," said Meg Lavender, a retired business analyst. During an evening of conflict and contention, these were four words on which everyone could agree.
(David M. Shribman is executive editor of the Post-Gazette (email@example.com, 412-263-1890). Follow him on Twitter at ShribmanPG.)
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