- Associated Press - Thursday, May 26, 2016

BILLINGS, Mont. (AP) - A crowd of thousands, buoyed by word that Donald Trump had just locked down the Republican presidential nomination, gathered in a Billings arena Thursday to cheer the New York businessman and his unlikely ascent to the top of his party.

Trump traveled to Montana after delivering his first policy speech on energy in North Dakota.

He reached the number of delegates needed to clinch the Republican nomination for president earlier Thursday, adding to the excitement for supporters who waited in line as long as 20 hours for a chance to hear Trump speak.

“The fact that he secured it today makes being here worthwhile,” said Darin Dupree, a 53-year-old convenience store worker and military veteran from Billings. Dupree arrived hours before Trump was scheduled to take the stage, joining throngs of Trump-backers waving signs and wearing caps emblazoned with the campaign’s motto, “Make America Great Again.”

“He’s going to make the jobs that need to be made and he’s going to help the everyday man,” Dupree added, shouting to be heard above the rock music blaring over the arena’s loudspeakers.

Trump spoke for about 50 minutes, opening by scanning the crowd for his son’s Montana hunting buddies before bashing Hillary Clinton, President Barack Obama and the news media within the first three minutes of taking the stage.

Exemplifying the crowd’s enthusiasm was Bruce Bahm of Billings, who was first in line for entrance to the rally. Bahm spent the night in a folding chair in the parking lot, enduring a hail storm Wednesday evening. He said Trump would best represent the silent majority and cited the vacancy on the U.S. Supreme Court as a crucial issue that he didn’t want a Democrat to fill.

“I’ll do everything I can to get him elected,” Bahm said.

The arena was about half-full, while three people stood in the designated area for protesters outside as the rally began. Some previous Trump rallies have descended into violence, but there were no obvious signs of unrest on Thursday.

“I was surprised and amazed there weren’t more people who wanted to stand up and protest at a Trump rally,” said Rachel Rosin, one of the protesters.

Democrats took advantage of Trump’s visit to highlight his often-controversial remarks about women and immigrants as reasons to oppose other Republicans running for statewide office.

Montana Republicans, meanwhile, began to coalesce around Trump. U.S. Rep. Ryan Zinke endorsed Trump Wednesday. U.S. Sen. Steve Daines - who said previously Trump was not his first or second choice for president - endorsed the New Yorker on Thursday.

Some Republicans kept their distance. GOP gubernatorial candidate Greg Gianforte did not attend the rally, citing a previously scheduled meeting with the Montana Mining Association near Butte. His campaign issued a statement in which Gianforte welcomed “yet another 2016 presidential candidate to Montana” but did not use Trump’s name.

If Montana voters select a Democrat for president in November, it would break more than two decades of domination by Republican candidates. The last Democrat to take the state was former President Bill Clinton in 1992.

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