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PHOTO: Presidential contender Donald Trump enters the rally at the American Airlines Center in Dallas on Sept. 14. PHOTO by ROBERT HART/THE TEXAS TRIBUNE


DALLAS — The boisterous billionaire, bathing in the adulation of thousands here, sounded genuinely puzzled.

“Have you ever heard of the great state of Texas?” Donald Trump queried his audience. “We’re leading in Texas. How does that happen?”

The typically self-assured candidate is not the only Republican asking that question these days. With his massive rally inside the American Airlines Center — easily the largest 2016 campaign event so far in Texas — Trump provided the latest signal that he’s crashing a Texas primary field far from settled.

Assumptions about which candidates would cash in their personal and political ties to the state have been scrambled by a New York billionaire’s stubborn perch atop the polls, and to a lesser extent, the abrupt but not surprising flameout of Texas’ longest-serving governor.

“In Texas, before Trump got into the race, we were talking about how Texans were going to decide between Rick Perry, Ted Cruz, Jeb Bush and even Rand Paul,” said Wade Emmert, chairman of the Dallas County GOP. “The thought was Ted Cruz would get the majority of those votes.”

But with Trump’s proven staying power, it is “entirely possible he wins the Texas primary, especially if his poll numbers remain high leading up to March 1,” Emmert said.

Reliable indicators of the GOP field in Texas have been few and far between at this early stage. But Trump’s influence on the Republican race in the Lone Star State has been unmistakable, starting with his war of words earlier this summer with Perry.

When Perry dropped out Friday, Trump was most cited as the former Texas governor’s cause of political death, a casualty of a summer in which candidates’ anti-Trump crusades only drove their poll numbers deeper into the cellar.

“I like that man, and frankly, he tried,” Trump said of Perry in Dallas, offering his latest backhanded compliment to his erstwhile foe.

On Monday night, as Trump’s rally was letting out in one of the largest cities in Perry’s home state, the former governor was preparing for a much more humbling experience: his first interview since dropping out. In the appearance on Fox News, Perry lamented how the 2016 race has come to resemble a reality TV show, no doubt a jab at Trump, the former “Apprentice” star.

Perry’s exit has refocused 2016 attention on the only remaining candidate who calls Texas home: U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, whose strategy appears to be patiently — and politely — riding out Trump’s dominance in the hopes of raiding his supporters if and when he stumbles. But the Trump juggernaut has shown no signs of stopping, and in Dallas, the real estate mogul suggested his chummy relationship with Cruz was not unconditional.

Cruz “happens to be a good guy. Good guy,” Trump said before quickly adding a caveat about the upcoming GOP debate: “Now if he comes out and attacks me on Wednesday, I’ll take it back immediately.”

Then there is Jeb Bush, the former Florida governor with deep roots in Texas who has been the recipient of Trump’s most relentless attacks. It was in McAllen last month that Bush chose to consummate a new, harsher tone toward his billionaire antagonist, calling him an unserious candidate and questioning his conservative credentials.

In an interview Sunday, Bush’s son, Texas Land Commissioner George P. Bush, predicted Trump’s Monday rally in Dallas would be more a reflection of his celebrity than of his chances in the GOP field.

“I think that Dad is running his game plan, and when you look at the history of the Republican presidential cycle, you see a lot of volatility at this stage in the race,” George P. Bush said of Jeb Bush. “He knew that coming into it — that there always was going to be an outsider or several outsiders that would run strong in the polls.”

What truly matters, the younger Bush added, is a candidate’s track record and his organization in the early voting states.

Trump’s candidacy has tested that very idea. His political resume is paper-thin, and his past liberal stands have so far failed to dampen his appeal among the GOP primary electorate. While Trump regularly travels to the early voting states and has staff in spades there, the bulk of his campaign so far has been waged on cable TV, which provides the unpredictable businessman with wall-to-wall coverage.

“It’s always tough,” Trump said in Dallas, reflecting on the near-constant spotlight. “Every time I speak, they put me on live television. I have to make different speeches. [Other candidates] go around and make the same speech, hundreds and hundreds and hundreds — nobody cares. It’s true!”

In Texas, where the March 1 primary carries more weight than usual in the GOP nominating process, Trump’s organization appears loose at best and nonexistent at worst. But that may not be a problem with the increasingly national focus of the race, according to Emmert, the chairman of the Dallas County Republican Party.

“Right now the national politics is driving much of the polling in Texas when it comes to these candidates,” Emmert said. “The question is, can they win it without the organization in Texas? And I think absolutely they can.”

Trump’s supporters certainly think he can. Donning a red and white “Make America Great Again” visor, Rich Rodriguez, an attendee at Monday night’s Trump rally, said all he sees is a “bunch of liars” when he looks at Trump’s GOP rivals.

Asked whether he planned to ultimately vote for Trump or was just intrigued by his celebrity, Rodriguez, who works in transportation in Dallas, did not hesitate to answer. “Oh, I’m voting for him,” Rodriguez said. “There’s no doubt.”

Trump had his own message for the naysayers as he soldiered through a freewheeling speech clocking in at more than an hour: “We’ve had a lot of fun, and now it’s time to really start because this is going to happen. I’m not going anywhere.”

PATRICK SVITEK reports for The Texas Tribune where this story was originally published. It is made available here through a news partnership between the Texas Tribune and the San Marcos Mercury.

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