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Trump begins California campaign with raw performance in O.C.; protesters take to the streets

Trump rally

A demonstrator against Donald Trump lies before a line of Costa Mesa police officers at the intersection of Fair Drive and Fairview Road near the Pacific Amphitheater, where the candidate’s freewheeling speech was cheered by more than 8,000 supporters.

(Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)

Donald Trump put his roughest edges on display Thursday night in Costa Mesa as he opened his California primary campaign with a raw performance highlighting his hard-line views on illegal immigration and torture while trashing an array of rivals.

The front-runner for the Republican presidential nomination surrounded himself onstage with people carrying banners with photos of family members killed by immigrants in the country illegally.

More than 8,000 supporters erupted in a thunder of cheers as Trump vowed to make Mexico pay for a wall along its border with the United States to keep such criminals from harming Americans.

“We’re going to stop drugs from coming in,” Trump told them. “The drugs are poisoning our youth and a lot of other people.”

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Donald Trump’s rally in Costa Mesa attracted throngs of supporters and detractors.

Outside the packed Pacific Amphitheater, hundreds of protesters grew unruly after the rally, taking over nearby intersections, throwing debris at bystanders, smashing the windshield of a police vehicle, and shouting profanities against Trump. Dozens of officers in riot gear ordered protesters swarming the streets near the 55 Freeway to disperse; at least one person was arrested.

After weeks of toying with efforts to tone down his rhetoric, Trump’s kickoff rally for California’s June 7 primary was more in line with the initial declaration of his candidacy last June, when he accused Mexico of sending rapists and drug dealers into the United States.

As the crowd’s rapturous reaction attested, it’s still an approach with strong appeal to a large segment of Republican voters in California. But it’s also the kind of politics that has badly damaged the party’s standing in a state where the Latino and Asian population has risen steadily for decades.

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Trump also played to fears of terrorism, blasting President Obama for allowing Middle Eastern war refugees into the United States.

“We’re putting them all over the country by the thousands, and we have no idea what the hell is going to happen,” he said.

Trump repeated a story discredited by historians about U.S. Army Gen. John Joseph Pershing dipping 50 bullets in pig blood and using them to execute 49 Muslim terrorists around the time of the Philippine-American War of 1899-1902. The crowd applauded. Trump said Pershing gave the 50th suspect the remaining bullet to show to his people, and it deterred terrorism for 42 years — up from 25 years in an earlier telling.

Trump went on to criticize Republican rival Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas for not embracing the waterboarding of terrorism suspects.

“He’s actually a very weak person, so he didn’t like it,” Trump said. “I’d go many steps further than waterboarding — many, many steps further.”

His torture comments generated another huge burst of cheers.

Trump was in maximum showmanship mode, with hand gestures up, down, sideways and in circles to complement his one-liners, along with a vast range of facial expressions for comic effect.

Reacting to onetime rival and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush renewing his criticism of Trump on Thursday, the New York real estate mogul said: “He’s a low-energy person. We don’t need low-energy people. Just remember that. We need high-energy. We need strength. You know — Hillary, Hillary — Crooked Hillary, right?”

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The crowd’s cheering nearly drowned out Trump.

The scene outside the rally was tense even before the event started, with demonstrators and Trump supporters taunting one another. Sheriff’s deputies on horseback tried to keep the two sides apart as four helicopters circled overhead.

Trump supporters booed a man wearing a Mexican flag as he approached.

“Build the wall!” they chanted.

Retired carpenter Brent Fisher, 65, drove from his Apple Valley home. He said he was tired of politicians saying they will secure the Mexican border, then failing to do it.

“I love Trump,” he said. “He’ll stand up and fight and do the things he’s talking about.”

Costa Mesa protester Jessica Mendoza-Amin, 34, didn’t see it that way. Trump’s remarks about women, Muslims and immigrants divide the country, she said. “I don’t want to live in a country where people are not down with diversity,” she said.

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At the back of the outdoor amphitheater, police in green fatigues scanned the crowd for troublemakers.

The audience shouted “Trump! Trump! Trump!” as security officers removed a man holding a camera. He filmed them as they escorted him outside.

Trump’s California visit, his first since he started winning primaries in February, comes just over five weeks before the state’s primary. He is counting on California to get him to the 1,237 delegates he needs to clinch the GOP nomination before the party’s July convention in Cleveland.

Orange County is a major target for Republicans. It remains the state’s biggest GOP stronghold, but it’s less conservative than it was in the days when it anchored the careers of Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan.

Orange County’s population has diversified, with an influx of Asian and Latino residents slowly diminishing the political clout of whites.

A decade ago, Republicans were 48% of Orange County’s registered voters; now they are 40%. Democrats have risen from 30% to 32%, while nonpartisans grew from 18% to 24%.

Twitter: @finneganLAT @LATvives @mattdpearce

Times staff writer Matt Hamilton contributed to this report.

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