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Life inside of a Donald Trump rally

Just after Thanksgiving, an elephant with "Trump: Make America Great Again" painted on its side roamed the Sarasota Fairgrounds. Thousands of spectators gawked at the elephant, who was really just the opening act for businessman and Republican candidate Donald Trump. Then, as the soundtrack from the movie "Air Force One" blared, Trump's helicopter landed, and the candidate alighted to address the overflow crowd and give helicopter rides to children -- "Gorgeous, wonderful, but only really well-behaved."

Spectacle defines life on the trail with Trump, and to the surprise of many, it seems to be working for him: The impersonators, the helicopter, the men wearing sombreros. People line up by the thousands and wait for hours to see him in venues typically reserved for concerts or sporting events.

The rallies themselves are more akin to jam band concerts than political speeches - more "Jessica" by the Allman Brothers than the Gettysburg Address by Abraham Lincoln. He doesn't use a teleprompter, but that's because he doesn't have a written speech. Trump talks at the audience off the top of his head usually for about an hour, meandering from topic to topic in a one-sided conversation, sometimes interrupting himself, or being interrupted by the crowd or protesters.

Like other candidates, he has his groupies - people who follow him around from event to event. Sixty-four-year-old retired nightclub owner Richard Snowden, once drove nearly 700 miles to Virginia Beach, Virginia for a Trump rally, only to find it had been canceled because of Hurricane Joaquin.

"It was very bad," Snowden said. "Heavy rains, swirling waters, choppy waters across the Hamptons there."

Not to be deterred, he turned around and drove to Franklin, Tennessee - eleven hours from Virginia Beach - to see a Trump rally there. He even flew out his 12-year-old son Robbie from Buffalo for some father-son bonding over Trump.

"We love it that he has the establishment in a tizzy," Snowden said, while wearing a suit and handing out Trump hats for $15.

Go to a Trump rally and you'll likely see 55-year-old Tim Engelskirchea. In Pensacola, Florida, he circled the parking lot, sporting the now commonly seen bright red Make America Great hat. He was waving Trump flags, hats and badges.

Engelskirchea takes his merchandise cart and follows the campaign wherever it goes, selling Trump memorabilia. The Pensacola stop was his 20th.

"Five dollar flags, hats, t-shirts!" Engelskirchea said to bystanders in the parking lot. "Big ones are $20, little ones are $5."

Then a pause.

"Make America great again!" he concluded his sales pitch. Engelskirchea is from Charlotte, North Carolina. His life now is all Trump all the time.

"I like money and I like Trump so I put the two together and I get to go see Trump and I get to make a little money," Engelskirchea said.

While no two speeches are completely alike, Trump has his greatest hits - and often, the crowds react as they might to Bruce Springsteen. When Trump opens speeches with a riff castigating the Iranian nuclear deal, he's just getting warmed up. When Trump says he's going to "repeal and replace Obamacare" - that's Trump's "Born To Run" - the crowd roars appreciatively. Getting rid of Common Core is Trump's "Thunder Road." Over time, Trump's rallies have become more uniform - and even a bit more disciplined.

There is plenty of call and response with the audience. At an August rally in Derry, New Hampshire, a man yelled that former Florida governor and fellow presidential candidate Jeb Bush was sinking to the bottom of Lake Winnipesaukee, the largest lake in New Hampshire. Trump beamed and exclaimed, "My group! These are my people!" Recently, Trump has taken to yelling, "Who's gonna pay for the wall?" Crowds respond enthusiastically, "Mexico!"

Then there are the Trump-isms - comments articulated in colorful rhetoric that would sound awkward coming out of any other candidate's mouth. Here's a smattering from a recent rally in Claremont, New Hampshire:

Trump told the crowd that the kind of president the country needs is one who has a "big, big, big, beautiful fat brain."

In discussing Claremont's aesthetics, Trump said, "What's your crime rate here? Zero or something? Like a magnificent painting. Somebody walks into those houses -- bing -- it's over."

The motif of winning plays a huge role in Trump's rhetoric.

"I'm winning with the smart people," Trump said earlier this month. "I'm winning with the not-so-smart people too. We're winning everything!"

And bashing the media is also a recurring theme. While routinely calling the media dishonest, he makes it a point to claim that the cameras on the risers don't show his crowd sizes. Immediately, crowds will turn around and jeer at the press. In Biloxi, Mississippi, earlier this month - Trump took it a step further and went on a six-minute diatribe against a single cameraman, who was shooting the rally on behalf of the national networks. When the cameraman did not turn his camera to show the crowd, Trump called it "disgusting" - and then said that he would "fire his ass."

Even the pre-rally soundtrack is not what you would expect at a Republican political rally, where country music often plays on a loop. Trump's playlist typically consists of opera, Adele, Elton John and selections from the"Phantom of the Opera" soundtrack. The playlist is handpicked by Trump and sometimes is at odds with his audience. At a November rally in Beaumont, Texas - a number of attendees tried to implore the audio technician to play "better music." The Beatles' "Hey Jude," elicited a more positive reaction -- many started waving phones in the air.

In recent months, protesters have become a mainstay of Trump rallies and how the campaign handles them has evolved. At a rally in Raleigh, North Carolina - when Trump's speech was interrupted at least ten times, he expressed irritation with his staff for not removing them quickly enough. Sometimes he is aggressive with protesters - pointing at the exit and yelling "Get 'em out!" In Burlington, Vermont, Trump said that one protester's coat should be confiscated. Audience members can be aggressive with protesters as well, sometimes caught on video kicking and spitting on them.

Trump is acutely aware that he's been accused of fomenting violence against protesters.

"Do you see how diplomatic I've become?" Trump said in Sarasota. "Because at the last rally we had one person. We had 15,000 people, we had one person who was really, really being bad. Really, being bad and it was horrible, it was horrible and we said get out ,get out. A little bit rough and I got criticized. So today - you, as my witness, was I nicer?"

Now, the campaign has taken a different tack, with an announcement before the speech beseeching supporters to not harm protesters and to chant Trump's name instead. Trump often jokes that he stages the protesters so he can get the cameras to show his crowd sizes.

Trump's campaign schedule is less strenuous compared to the rest of the Republican field as well. Until recently, Trump did one massive event a day at about 7 p.m. -- a little like primetime programming. Even now, with the Iowa caucus less than two weeks away, he tops out at two or three events a day while other candidates sometime squeeze in five or six.

Compare that to candidate like Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, who is appearing at ten events in Iowa in two days last week. Iowa front runner Ted Cruz's schedule also includes several events a day.

Traditional retail politics don't suit Trump. Grip-and-grins in Iowa and New Hampshire diners would be untenable because of the crowd sizes.

He is ramping up now, though. Trump's rally in Reno, Nevada last week was his first campaign stop on a Sunday. That same weekend - he gave two speeches on the same day in Iowa - a rarity. On Tuesday, he gave three speeches in Iowa - one in which he was endorsed by 2008 vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin - only adding to the circus. It was the first time as a candidate that Trump has given three speeches on the same day.

Whether Trump he succeeds or not could have reverberations for election cycles to come, not so much because he can change retail politics -- most politicians don't have his kind of celebrity -- but because he could have an impact on the type of person entering presidential politics.