Republican presidential frontrunner Donald Trump decried what he called a "rigged" primary system, but focused mainly on the general election as he campaigned for the first time in Maryland on Wednesday — a state with the potential to help clear his path to the GOP nomination.
Fresh off a landslide victory Tuesday in New York, Trump brought his characteristic bravado to a high school gymnasium here on the Eastern Shore, telling a capacity audience that he was confident of winning the nod before the party's convention this summer, and suggesting that Maryland, and the four other states holding elections next Tuesday, will be key to that success.
As he fired up a crowd that waited hours to see him — in a rural, conservative part of the state widely considered supportive of his campaign — Trump ditched the more genteel, presidential tone he adopted during his victory speech the night before. "Sen. Ted Cruz" was once again "Lyin' Ted Cruz," and references to "Crooked Hillary" were once again a central part of his message.
"If I win, it will have a lot to do with right here," said Trump. His success in New York pushed his total number of delegates to 845 of the 1,237 he needs to sew up the nomination before the Republican National Convention in July.
"If I win," he added, "there is no path for Lyin' Ted Cruz to get the nomination."
Trump is expected to add substantially to his delegate lead on Tuesday, when voters in Maryland, Pennsylvania, Delaware, Rhode Island and Connecticut head to the polls. The continuing battle for delegates has made the late-primary states suddenly relevant, after years in which they were treated mainly as an afterthought in the presidential nominating process.
Hitting themes that have defined his campaign for months, Trump criticized the Obama administration for its positions on trade, immigration and health care. He used large portions of his 45-minute address to defend his candidacy against what he views as unfair attacks from establishment Republicans — some of whom are hoping to stop his campaign at the convention in Cleveland — and the media.
"This is a movement going on, folks," Trump said. "We're going to bring smart back to the country."
Trump made at least one unforced error, asking a crowd of Marylanders — most of whom are presumably loyal to the Ravens — about New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady.
"Do we love Tom Brady?" he said during a riff on Massachusetts that elicited an unusual round of boos.
Sports aside, Trump has consistently led the field in Maryland since Ben Carson, a retired Johns Hopkins neurosurgeon, dropped out of the race in March.
The state's Republican voters have tended to vote for centrists, which has given supporters of Ohio Gov. John Kasich hope of gaining some momentum here, but that has yet to materialize.
Trump had a 20-point lead over Kasich in a Monmouth University Poll released last week. The Real Clear Politics average of polls has Trump ahead 15 points in the state.
On the one hand, Trump's support in Maryland is remarkable, given the lack of organization his campaign seems to have on the ground. The Baltimore Sun interviewed nearly a dozen Trump delegate candidates earlier this month who could not identify a state-based point of contact for the campaign. Some were unclear on even basic mechanics of how the delegate balloting process works.
For the most part, establishment GOP figures in the state — including Gov. Larry Hogan — have eschewed their party's presidential front runner.
Hogan, who won an improbable statewide victory in 2014, has said Trump should not be his party's nominee. Rep. Andy Harris, whose district Trump visited Wednesday, initially endorsed Carson and has not weighed in on the race since the field narrowed to three.
Harris, who represents the Eastern Shore, was in Washington and did not attend the Trump event.
On the other hand, Trump has won in other states with little support from their elected officials. And despite an apparent lack of campaign apparatus in the traditional sense, his rally drew a significant crowd.
The Stephen Decatur High School gymnasium, which can hold 3,000 people according to a Worcester Sheriff spokesman, was full long before Trump's jet touched down in nearby Salisbury.
Bruce States, a 57-year-old truck driver from Easton, arrived three and a half hours early with his wife to witness his first presidential campaign rally.
"I'm voting for Trump because we had better do something in this country," he said. "Donald's the man because he ain't a politician."
The crowd in the humid gymnasium chanted "build that wall" and "U.S.A." Outside, thousands formed a line outside that wound around the school and ended in an adjacent cornfield. Many did not make it in the door.
Despite Trump's large win in New York, the drawn-out fight for delegates has put an unusual emphasis on the five states voting next week.
Maryland, with 38 delegates to offer, is the second-largest prize in the group, after Pennsylvania. But in the event that no candidate reaches a majority of delegates before the convention, Maryland offers a bonus: Its delegates, unlike those of its northern neighbor, are committed to the winner in each of its congressional districts for the first two rounds of balloting at the convention.
Kasich has campaigned in the state twice already, and Cruz announced he will make a second visit — this time to Frederick — on Thursday.
In Maryland, a GOP candidate can win three delegates from any of the state's eight congressional districts even if they do not carry the statewide vote. Twenty-four delegates are up for grabs from the districts, and an additional 14 are allocated statewide.
By holding his rally in the 1st Congressional District, Trump was stumping in friendly territory: The front runner has tended to perform well in rural regions. And he drew media from both Maryland and Delaware outlets — both of which cover the Eastern Shore.
He also likely minimized protests from more Democratic parts of the state.
Rob Willis, a 51-year-old Berlin man, said he has supported Trump since the New York businessman announced his campaign. Willis said he is concerned about talk of a contested convention.
The movement Trump has inspired, Willis said, has been built on people who feel their perspective has been ignored. What message would it send, he asked, if the party overlooked Trump's victories in state after state?
"It's making me think my voice is unheard — it's bunk," Willis said. "We the people ought to be in the charge of the nomination."
Sun reporter Ian Duncan contributed to this report.