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Crowds expected as candidates flock to NWA

by Doug Thompson | February 26, 2016 at 1:05 a.m.
Republican presidential candidate businessman Donald Trump (center) speaks as fellow candidates Sen. Marco Rubio (left), R-Fla., and Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, look on Thursday during a Republican presidential primary debate at The University of Houston.

State lawmakers who voted for earlier primaries might not want to campaign among passengers at the Northwest Arkansas Regional Airport on Saturday.

Photo by NWA Democrat-Gazette/CHRIS SWINDLE
A map showing the location of parking at the Northwest Arkansas Regional Airport where Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump is appearing.

GOP presidential hopeful Donald Trump plans to be the first to arrive out of four candidates who plan to crisscross the state before Tuesday’s primaries. Trump rivals Sens. Marco Rubio, R-Florida, and Ted Cruz, R-Texas, also have stops planned in Arkansas. Democrat Hillary Clinton has two stops scheduled.

Three of six planned stops are in Northwest Arkansas. Clinton is the only visiting candidate not coming to the Northwest. She will appear Sunday at the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff and at an unannounced time in Little Rock, the state director of her party said.

“We’re putting out the news that if you’re coming to the airport, you might want to leave a couple of hours early,” said Scott Van Laningham, airport director.

The airport saw long traffic delays getting there and out when then-candidate George W. Bush arrived the night before the 2000 election. The same crowds appeared when he came back as president in 2002. Bush hosted a rally at a nearby hanger both times.

“We’re told to be ready for 7,000 to 8,000 people,” Van Laningham said of a similar rally planned by Trump on Saturday.

Doors to rally site, the Regional Jet Center Hanger at the north end of the airport, will open at 10 a.m.. Those wishing to attend the event are asked by the campaign to register at The rally is expected to last about an hour, according to airport officials.

The state Legislature bumped the date of 2016 party primaries and nonpartisan judicial elections from the first Tuesday in May to the first Tuesday in March. This allows Arkansas to join six other Southern states in the so-called ” SEC Primary.” Georgia Secretary of State Brian Kemp lead the effort, claiming it would give the South a greater say in picking a president.

Mayor Greg Hines of Rogers said this kind of presidential contender traffic hasn’t happened in the state before and certainly not in this region.

“If you live in Northwest Arkansas, whatever party you’re in, this ought to be a proud moment,” Hines said. “I’ve lived here my whole life and have never seen this number of candidates.”

Cruz’ campaign plans a rally Saturday in central Arkansas, said Rep. Bob Ballinger, R-Hindsville, Cruz’ state campaign chairman. The time and location had not been announced by Thursday afternoon.

Rubio has the next event scheduled. He plans a rally for 9:30 p.m. Saturday at Immanuel Baptist Church’s Global Outreach Center in Rogers. Gov. Asa Hutchinson, who has endorsed Rubio, will attend. The Rubio campaign requests attendees register at Registration at the door will be limited, the campaign website says. The rally is scheduled to last 45 minutes.

“We can hold well over 1,000,” said pastor Thomas Hatley.

Church officials request that attendees come to the front door and not try other entrances. The church was chosen as the site, in part, because “it’s a nontraditional set up here. The facility’s very versatile and anything can be set up quickly. For instance, we’re going to have chairs, but rally organizers expect most people to stand, which will allow more in while complying with fire codes.”

The church doesn’t endorse candidates but “anybody can come to our church,” he said.

The Cruz campaign announced plans to attend worship services at Cross Church of Springdale at 9:15 a.m. Sunday morning. This is a public event and, as of Thursday, the senator’s campaign hasn’t posted any registration link on the campaign website.

“Cross Church is thankful for and welcoming of anyone that wishes to participate in worship and hear a Gospel-focused sermon, thus Cross Church is pleased to welcome Senator Cruz,” said a prepared statement by Brian Dunaway, director of communications for that congregation. “Cross Church will not and does not endorse any political candidate for any office.”

Cruz will not speak at the service, but has requested a space for a news conference at 10:30 a.m. Sunday, after services are over, the church announced. Cross Church will grant the request.

Rubio will appear at 3 p.m. Monday at the University of Central Arkansas’ Indoor Practice Facility in the final presidential primary visit to Arkansas announced so far. Hutchinson is also expected to attend that rally. Registration requirements are the same as Rubio’s other events.

As of Thursday afternoon, neither of the two remaining GOP contenders had announced plans to visit the state. These are Gov. John Kaisch of Ohio and retired surgeon Ben Carson of Baltimore, Md. Clinton rival Sen. Bernie Sanders, D-Vt., has not announced any Arkansas visits either.

Local businesses always see a bump when an event draws a crowd, but there is no way to account for how much impact these events will have on local commerce, said Dana Davis, president of the Bentonville/Bella Vista Chamber of Commerce.

“They bring more people, but they bring more traffic too,” he said.

The events in churches are in downtown areas with plenty of street access and parking, Van Landingham said, but the more isolated airport will require some precautions. The Benton County Sheriff’s Office along with Highfill and airport police officers will be on hand to direct the flow of cars, along with Arkansas State Police.

“We’ve done this sort of thing before, and will have signs pointing to the event,” Van Laningham said. “There’s a natural tendency for people to pull off to the side of the road and walk in, but that a safety concern. We have two good-sized fields for people to park in, but after that people really need to use the third, remote lot and ride the shuttle.”

Metal detectors will be in use.

“Leave your pocket knives in the car,” he said.

Doug Thompson can be reached by email at or on Twitter @NWADoug

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