A wave of last-minute presidential campaigning hit the New Orleans area Friday as Donald Trump and Sen. Ted Cruz stumped for votes in dueling Republican rallies and former President Bill Clinton arrived to push a get-out-the-vote effort for his wife, Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton.
The rallies came a day before Louisianians cast their ballots in what has become a wild and unpredictable presidential race, one in which Louisiana is poised to signal whether Trump can retain his lead in the Republican race in the face of mounting attacks from other Republicans and whether Hillary Clinton can maintain the strong showing among black voters that put her ahead in earlier Democratic primaries in the South.
Trump and Cruz held rallies on opposite sides of Lake Pontchartrain on Friday night. Among other Republican hopefuls, Sen. Marco Rubio had scheduled a Friday night event in Baton Rouge before changing plans and heading to Kansas. Ohio Gov. John Kasich, who trails the rest of the field and has been pinning his hopes on Midwestern states, held a small town hall gathering in Metairie last week.
Trump jetted into New Orleans for a tumultuous rally in a hangar at New Orleans Lakefront Airport in front of several thousand supporters while a few hundred protesters rallied outside and inside the event. Supporters chanted, “Who dat say they gonna beat Trump?” as the candidate took the stage.
Among the protesters was a group of activists who chanted “Black lives matter” as they linked arms and fended off attempts to remove them as audience members nearby shouted, “All lives matter” and “U.S.A.”
Another man was kicked out for holding up a sign reading “K.K.K for Trump,” a reference to former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke’s recent statements in support of the candidate.
On the other side of the lake, Cruz supporters prepared for the arrival of their candidate at the Castine Center in Mandeville. Cruz was not scheduled to take the stage until after press time.
More than an hour before the rally was scheduled to start, several hundred people were in line in front of the nearly 3,000-person-capacity hall.
Many in the line sported “Choose Cruz” stickers, and they chatted amiably in the waning evening light.
“I’ve supported him from the start,” said Rebecca Naquin, who had traveled with her father and two young daughters more than two hours from her home in Melville to hear the Texas senator speak. “I like that he stood up against Obamacare and the family values that he holds.”
Naquin’s father, Joe Hunt, agreed. “He’s very conservative and very knowledgeable,” he said of Cruz.
Neither had a kind word to say about Cruz’s chief rival. “Trump’s a joke,” Naquin said. “How’s he going to build that wall?”
If Trump wins the GOP nomination, the two won’t vote, they said.
Cruz was expected to speak at the rally after Phil Robertson, of “Duck Dynasty” fame, and conservative activist Tony Perkins.
Saturday’s election is expected to provide the first glimpse of whether Trump can maintain the lead he held in the Super Tuesday elections earlier in the week in the face of increasingly vocal opposition from Republican leaders like Mitt Romney and concerted attacks by Cruz and Rubio.
A relatively small number of delegates will be awarded based on Saturday’s results — just 3.7 percent of those needed to clinch the Republican nomination and 2.5 percent of those needed for the Democratic nomination — and those delegates will be divided based on formulas that split them among top-performing candidates.
But the timing of the contest gives the election prominence beyond just the delegates to be awarded.
“Louisiana will have a big impact on the overall election,” state Republican Party Executive Director Jason Dore said.
On the Democratic side, results are likely to mirror those of other Southern states where Hillary Clinton beat Sen. Bernie Sanders by large margins on Tuesday. Like those states, Louisiana’s Democratic Party is built on a base of black voters, a demographic that has largely flocked to Clinton.
In an apparent attempt to run up the score and increase her delegate lead, the Clinton campaign has flooded the state with surrogates and events in recent weeks — including visits to Baton Rouge and New Orleans by Bill Clinton this week. The Sanders campaign, by contrast, has had no recent events in Louisiana, though supporters have organized several marches in the New Orleans area.
Interest in the race has been reflected in high turnout in early voting
The state is on track for a turnout of 20 to 25 percent, the highest seen in a presidential primary here since 1992, said Meg Casper, spokeswoman for the Secretary of State’s Office.
To cast a ballot in the presidential primary, voters must be registered with one of the parties and bring photo identification to their polling location. Elections for the parties’ parish and statewide committees are also being held on Saturday, as are local elections in many parishes.
Polls will be open from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m.
A University of New Orleans poll released Friday showed Trump with a commanding lead in the state, with a double-digit advantage over Cruz, his nearest competitor. About 38 percent of Republican voters said they were supporting Trump, compared with 26 percent for Cruz, 11 percent for Rubio and 5 percent for Kasich. About 20 percent said they were still undecided.
Trump’s support was strongest in the 1st Congressional District, which includes New Orleans and its suburbs, and weakest in southwest Louisiana, according to the poll.
The survey was conducted Wednesday, before former Republican presidential nominee Romney blasted Trump and Rubio and Cruz sought to keep the front-runner on the ropes during the televised debate. The Louisiana primary could provide an inkling of whether those attacks are eroding Trump’s support or if he is able to shrug them off as easily as he has previous attempts to sink his candidacy.