NORCROSS, Ga. (AP) — Donald Trump is a brash New Yorker who knows the path to the Republican presidential nomination runs through a swath of Southern states where residents pride themselves on graciousness and gentility.
He leads many state polls in the region just as he does nationally. In the last few weeks he's hired aides in Alabama, Georgia, Florida, Tennessee, Texas and Virginia to go along with staff in South Carolina, which hosts the South's first primary.
Trump and his top advisers cite the expansion as they push back against notions — fueled in part by his own remarks — that the he's reconsidering his bid as some polls suggest his momentum has stalled.
"I love this. ... I love the country. We're never, ever getting out of this deal," Trump told thousands of supporters gathered Saturday in the Atlanta surburb of Norcross. "We're going to take it to ... the convention, and after that we're going to beat Hillary, or whoever it is, so bad."
Trump told reporters he's got several television ads ready to run "if I have to." He said he'd initially planned to spend $20 million on advertising by this point, but argued there has been no need; he pointed to free media attention and crowds like those Saturday and an August rally in Alabama that drew more than 30,000.
Indeed, political observers across the South say Trump shouldn't be taken lightly and that the region could give him a big boost next year, even if it may not seem like a natural fit.
"He may not sound like us," said David Mowery, an Alabama-based consultant who has worked for both Republicans and Democrats in multiple states, "but he's saying the things that people in the Republican base — and even disaffected, frustrated voters outside that base — want to hear."
South Carolina is accustomed to its place immediately after Iowa and New Hampshire in the nominating process. But the rest of the South is enjoying newfound attention, driven by Georgia and others moving up for a March 1 Super Tuesday dubbed the "the SEC primary" after the college athletics league. Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Oklahoma, Tennessee and Virginia will have 471 delegates at stake that day. Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina and Florida follow in the next two weeks with a combined 301 delegates.
Among those, only Florida is winner-take-all; the rest will use varying proportional distributions of delegates. That means the region won't put any single candidate on the cusp of the 1,236 delegates necessary for nomination. But it will winnow the field.
And, if anything, Trump's anti-establishment rants may resonate more strongly in Southern states where white voters have long been among nation's most conservative and most distrustful of central government.
"He comes in and plays smash-mouth football, and it fires people up," says Henry Barbour, a Mississippian and influential member of the Republican National Committee who is neutral in the primary.
The Norcross crowd cheered Saturday when Trump called most politicians "stupid," laughed as he mocked his opponents by name and roared when he chided the media. When a few young attendees tried to protest his remarks on immigration, supporters drowned them out, one man repeatedly screaming, "Go home!" They roared again when Trump promised a sealed border and an end to birthright citizenship.
Amid the enthusiasm, Trump has overshadowed other candidates, including native Southerners. Former Texas Gov. Rick Perry, at ease with voters here, couldn't find his footing and dropped out. Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, an ordained Southern Baptist preacher, previously called the SEC primary "manna from heaven." He won several Southern primaries in 2008, but has found a tougher path this time. So, too, have Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal and South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham.
Huckabee boasts that his grassroots organization in South Carolina and neighboring states is more important than Trump's early lead. And, indeed, several candidates devote more time than Trump to the meet-and-greet affairs that occur away from big rallies. If any candidate has managed to produce both large crowds like Trump and build a nuts-and-bolts organization in the region, it's Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, another conservative who appeals to the Southern GOP's anti-Washington bent.
Yet that balance may not matter in 2016, says Roger Villere, Louisiana's longtime Republican Party chairman and a vice chairman of the national GOP. With so many states bunched close together, he said, it may be a campaign won largely on television and sweeping visits — just the scenario for a bombastic billionaire.
"Sure, you need some help on the ground," Villere said, "but I'm sure Mr. Trump or any of the rest of them who are doing well coming out of South Carolina will find everything they need."
Associated Press writer Jill Colvin in Newark, New Jersey, contributed to this report.
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