SELMA, N.C. — As he races through the last few days of his presidential campaign, Donald Trump can't help looking back.
"Who knew this is where we were going to be, right?" Trump told an impressive crowd — at least 15,000 — Thursday night at a sprawling former soybean field near I-95 in rural North Carolina. "Can you believe this? Five days. Can you believe it? Started on June 16 of last year, and look where we are."
The end of Trump's campaign looks a lot different from the last GOP nominee. On the Friday before the election in 2012, Mitt Romney held a huge rally in West Chester, Ohio. He had what appeared to be the entire party structure with him — running mate Paul Ryan, John McCain, Reince Priebus, Marco Rubio, John Boehner, Rick Perry, John Kasich, Rudy Giuliani and more, all in nifty bright-red Romney-Ryan fleeces.
Trump had a big crowd, and big jumbotrons, and big flags hanging from high cranes, like Romney did, but his casting was more austere. Instead of national GOP bigwigs, seated behind Trump, on the stage about 60 miles up the interstate from Ft. Bragg, were 22 admirals and generals (of the roughly 200 who have endorsed Trump), and seven Medal of Honor recipients. Trump paid tribute to them, and downplayed his own accomplishments at the same time.
"They're so much more brave than me," Trump said. "I wouldn't have done what they did. I'm brave in other ways — I'm financially brave. Big deal. These are real brave."
Trump devoted much of his prepared remarks to national security issues. He promised quick victory in the fight against the Islamic State. A tough line on Iran. More resources for the armed services. Cutting-edge weapons. Better veterans services. Better jobs and housing for military families. New technology, "produced at the Research Triangle, right here in North Carolina."
"And finally, a commitment to only engage the use of military forces when it's vital for the national security interests of the United States," Trump said. "We will stop trying to build foreign democracies, topple regimes and race recklessly to intervene in situations that we have no right to be there."
Trump did a lot of slamming of Hillary Clinton, too, but the slams were mostly scripted. That is the new, more disciplined Trump who has emerged in the campaign's final days, and not the freewheeling, free-association Trump of old who captured audiences in the Republican primaries and early general election campaign.
The old Trump would never have said things like, "In summary, my policy…" For audiences, the disciplined Trump has lost a little of the thrill of the old, high-wire Trump. But he also hasn't set off controversies that consume his campaign for days on end, as he once did. With the time to Election Day measurable in hours, Trump can't afford to do that now.
I talked with perhaps two dozen people, most of whom had already cast their vote for Trump. Since we were near the end of the campaign — they had supported Trump for a long time — I asked whether, during the many ups and downs, they had ever gotten discouraged, ever worried that Trump wouldn't go on to win.
"I did," Linda Wells, of Goldsboro, told me. "At one time I thought, well, if he does not get off the subject of those women and himself, I'm going to go through that TV and just give him a pop. He's going to ruin the whole thing for himself." Trump eventually straightened up, Wells said, and she particularly admired the way he never gave up, even under attack from all 'round.
"The times I got discouraged were when he would say something foolish — and as you know, he said some things foolish," said Larry Massengill, of Dunn. "But I'm not voting for the man or the woman. I'm voting for this country. And he's the best choice for this country."
Watching Trump sometimes, Susan Woolard, of Washington, N.C., told me, "I would just kind of go, 'Oh, no, you didn't' — like a child, you know what I'm saying? Like, 'Oh, no, no.' But I never faltered."
Others said it didn't matter whether or not they were occasionally discouraged by Trump. Even if they first supported another Republican candidate — most I talked to had been with Trump all the way, but some had supported Ted Cruz — they believed the choice between Trump and Hillary Clinton was no choice at all. She would be a disaster for the country.
"This is my opinion on Trump," Rodney Strickland, of Bunnlevel, who originally supported Cruz, told me. "With Hillary, there's a 100 percent chance we're going to lose everything we stand for. Trump, it's 50-50."
I ran into a woman, who didn't want to give her name, who had been born and raised in Italy and Spain and moved to the United States in the 1960s. Her accent remained heavy, and she brought a certain European perspective to the race.
Yes, she had been occasionally discouraged, she said. "It's scary when they bring out all these personal things that nobody cares about. It's disheartening because you want him to win — I want him to win. I think we're going to vote not for a friend, not for a husband, not for your priest — we want a president that's going to change the country."
That's what happens in politics. You're standing in the middle of a soybean field, out in the country in North Carolina, listening to a New York real estate mogul and talking with a woman who seemed to have stepped right out of "La Dolce Vita."
I also met Andrea Reynolds, originally from Bicester, England, daughter of a Royal Navy officer and wife of a retired U.S. Air Force officer. Reynolds said she lived in the U.K. up until about eight years ago. She was a midwife with the National Health Service as it struggled with scarce resources and a growing immigrant population.
"I know what it's like to live with socialized healthcare," Reynolds, who isn't a U.S. citizen and can't vote, told me. "There's not enough time, and there's not enough people, and there's not enough money, and there's not enough equipment. And when you just keep letting them in — the ship sinks. I don't want it to happen here, because this is the last stand."
Reynolds' friend, Rosanne Sinatra, from Raleigh, was standing nearby, and came up after Reynolds finished. "I just wanted to say, as a Hispanic-American, I am so for Trump, 100 percent," Sinatra told me. (Her ancestors founded Santa Fe, New Mexico in the 17th century, she said.) "I started watching all the primary candidates when they came out. I kind of liked Scott Walker, kind of liked Ted Cruz and Carly [Fiorina]. But the minute Donald Trump came out and said he wanted to build that wall, and he wanted to stop the illegal aliens — that was my guy. Because you can't have a country without borders. We have a right to sovereignty."
Others told me they were never discouraged about Trump, not even for a minute, not even in the most difficult times.
"Make sure you put in your article that there are plenty of college-educated, white career women voting for Trump," Elizabeth Lane, of Raleigh, told me.
"You might be one of them?"
Lane said she voted for President Obama in 2008, Romney in 2012, and now Trump. She has sometimes been discouraged by both candidates in this campaign, she added, but sees the Clinton-Trump choice as an easy call for Trump.
The Trump campaign, as an actual campaign, has become more organized. As supporters arrived at the rally, passing through Secret Service metal detectors, they were met inside the security perimeter by people in lime-green ASK ME HOW TO VOTE T-shirts. They were asking if people would sign a sheet giving their name, email address, phone number, and check one of two boxes that said, "I have early voted for Trump and the GOP!" or "I commit to vote for Trump and the GOP on election day!"
Most people checked the box saying they had voted early. When Trump asked from the stage, it appeared there were many more who had already voted than who planned to vote Tuesday.
A man in one of the green T-shirts approached me to ask if I had already voted. I said I lived out of state. He said it didn't matter, had I early voted? I told him I had. Then he asked me to pick out a friend and make sure he or she gets to the polls to vote, to drive them to the polls myself if need be.
I also met people who had been bused to the rally from Carolina Outlets, a giant mall about seven miles down 95. In short, Trump in Selma was an organized affair.
The get-out-the-vote activities at the Trump rally were as energetic as the efforts I saw at two Clinton rallies, including one with First Lady Michelle Obama, here in North Carolina last week. Indeed, on the night Trump spoke here in Selma, Clinton was not too far away in Raleigh, at a rally with Bernie Sanders and the hip-hop artist Pharrell. The crowd was about one-third the size of Trump's.
When Trump finished, fireworks shot into the air from a nearby field. The show went on for quite a while, as people headed to their cars and the Rolling Stones' "You Can't Always Get What You Want" played, as it always does, right after Trump left the stage. An epic traffic jam followed, with cars standing still for an hour waiting to join a single-file line to leave the property.
Trump will return to North Carolina before Election Day. The state is so important to his fortunes that he will be back on Monday, his last chance to make an in-person impression on the voters. In the latest RealClearPolitics average of polls, Trump leads Clinton by 0.8 points, which means that nobody knows what will happen with the state's critical 15 electoral votes.
No matter how it turns out, Trump's supporters here, who have always been attracted to his strengths, have, over the course of a long and bumpy campaign, come to terms with his weaknesses, too. They see him standing up for them, and sometimes taking a hell of a beating for it, and they're grateful. They're Republicans, for the most part; they've lost campaigns before. They know they might lose this one, too. But they're at peace with what has happened.