On a table in front of a mirror in Donald Trump's dressing room at the Cabarrus Arena and Events Center are four glass tumblers engraved with the venue's logo. In two of the tumblers are wrapped red and white striped lollies. There are two packets of Dentyne chewing gum, one spearmint, the other peppermint. At either side are wicker-effect baskets. In one there are Lays potato chips and Oreo cookies. In the other MilkyWay minis and a thermal carry cup, the kind you might put your coffee in if you had to rush out to work. Outside the dressing room and around a corner is another mirror, full-length on a small square table covered with a white cloth. Reflected in the mirror are the steps to the stage. Taped to the handrail on the right-hand side is an A4 piece of paper that carries the Trump campaign logo and a warning: ON CAMERA HERE. Donald Trump climbs the stairs. He walks through a gap in the four-metre black curtains blocking backstage from the arena floor and stops. In front of him is a 60-metre catwalk; above him the flags of the USA and North Carolina; to the right a red, white and blue campaign sign demanding MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN! He walks 14 paces and stops. He turns to his right and points at some people in the bank of tiered seating to his right. He walks five more paces and stops again. This time he turns to his left and claps the hundreds of people standing below him on the floor of the arena. Seven more paces. Stop. Turn to the right. Clap again. Nine more. Left. Point and clap. Six. At the podium. He opens his arms, claps, points and raises his hands to chest level as if in deference. Sixty-four seconds after he appears, he moves his head down to the microphone. "Thank you very much everybody. Thank you." He pauses. The cheering intensifies. "These are wild times." Another pause. "These are wild times." Pause. "Wow what a beautiful building and place and all these people." The cheering subsides. "But honestly we always have a lot of people, they just want to see this country do the right thing again. You know that. They want to do the right thing. We're going to be the smart country again very soon." Descriptions of this as America's WWE Election are not without merit. Trump is the anti-authority crowd darling. Part "Stone Cold" Steve Austin, part Hulk Hogan. He walks the runway like a wrestler and works the crowd like one too. He has form. He starred in a WWE storyline in 2007.
Gone was the awkward Trump of the TV debates, a man uncomfortable, out of his comfort zone. This time he's on familiar ground. These are his people. That's why it's his second visit to the area this year. Cabarrus Arena is in Cabarrus County. Next month it hosts the Intergalactic Bead and Jewelry Show. In December there's a reptile and exotic animal show called Repticon. The arena is 10km outside Concord, the county seat. The Republicans always win in Cabarrus. The Democrats have won 40 per cent of the popular vote only twice since 1956, in the first elections after the assassination of JFK and Nixon's resignation. Cabarrus is two hours from Raleigh, with its universities and progressive attitudes. Raleigh and similar urban areas have delivered a boost to the Democrats in recent elections. Obama won North Carolina in 2008, before losing it to Mitt Romney four year ago. It's in the balance again, one of the swing states that will decide the election. Clinton is in Raleigh later for a rally with Pharrell, whose song Freedom
is a regular on her pre-speech mixtape. Cabarrus has bounced back okay from the Global Financial Crisis. Better than many more rural counties in the state. A good chunk of its residents work in fast-growing Charlotte, the second-largest city in the southeastern US. Outside the early polling booth on Church St North in Concord, a queue of people are waiting in line. Dozens of small rectangular signs promoting various candidates for the multitude of local jobs up for grabs next week are pushed into the grass at the top of the path into the polling station. There are volunteers for both major parties proffering cards listing their respective candidates. There are few takers for the Democrats'. Emily Tate, who is handing them out, is unfazed. She acknowledges it's hard going being surrounded by so many Republicans but says they are "for the most part" very polite. Jake Murdoch leaves the polling booth after voting for Trump. He likes that he's not a "polished politician". He dislikes Hillary Clinton. "She's got a lot of baggage with her that she would bring into the White House." Lynn Lewis says it's "time for a change". Tammy Kennedy says America needs "something different". There are
long lines of traffic queuing to get into the arena. In the carpark is an RV - recreational vehicle, think giant motorhome - with images highlighting Clinton's position on abortion. Most Republicans in Cabarrus are anti-abortion. They are also fearful of gun control. Matters of life and death. Another RV is emblazoned with the phrase Trump Train and associated imagery. Media get into the arena through a separate entrance. Bags are checked by sniffer dogs and searched by hand. Inside the arena is Eddy Vee. He's on the is on the Trump Train. The 40-year-old works in "tech". He, too, thought it was time for change. Vee wears a red, white and blue striped cowboy hat and red and white candy striped trousers. The design on his dark blue T-shirt is a play on the Iron Man comic book character popularised in movies starring Robert Downey Jr. It is the Iron Man character with Trump's face and that slogan: MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN! There is a queue of journalists waiting to interview Vee. He ditched the Democrats over Obamacare, the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. The law, introduced by Obama in 2010, was designed to increase the quality and affordability of healthcare to help lower-income Americans. Critics say health insurance premiums have spiked. "I've been a Democrat all my life. I voted Obama twice," says Vee. He says he believed Obama when he said in 2010 that the average family would be $2500 better off. He says the cost of his health insurance has gone up 68 per cent. He says he spends more each month on his health insurance than his mortgage. "It was a lie in 2010 and [the Democrats] just keep that going." Vee is all aboard what supporters call the Trump Train. He's been to 17 rallies since August, changing his work schedule to ensure required travel tallies with Trump's engagements. "This was a vote for changing the healthcare. That was my single issue. Now in the process of studying what Trump stands for I found out that there are a lot of things that I align with him on, more than I realised." The opening policy statement in Trump's speech is a promise to abolish and replace Obamacare.
Afterwards Warren Barker says the pledge is "right on the money ... this is killing us". Trump knows these people alright. His speech is like an in-ring message from the champ. There are chants ("Lock her up", "Build the wall"). There are catchphrases ("Drain the swamp"). There are boos, for Clinton and the media ("bad people" who try so hard to protect her). He interacts with a group from his Trump National Golf Club in Charlotte. He calls for a doctor and tells them to hurry up when a woman who had been waiting seven hours to see him collapses. His voice is mellifluous, his cadence late-period Liberace. He was criticised as rude, angry and aloof in those TV debates. If he's had new, different or more intensive training in public presentation since then, it's been noticed. George Prisco sat on the railing around the media pen during the speech, bellowing messages of support. Afterwards he said the delivery, on the second time he's seen Trump live, was "excellent". "It was the foundation of America, bringing America back to being number one, bring jobs back, change, reform. He's not being bought by lobbyists or other people. He doesn't have anybody in his pocket. He doesn't have to answer to anyone but the people. "He's got much better. He's much more refined. He's on point. He's staying on message. He's closing the gap." Outside the polling booth in Concord, Tammy Kennedy said Trump was too used to getting his own way in business and had to learn to compromise. She said he was already "smoothing out a little bit". Not completely. Where Clinton wants a "550 per cent increase in Syrian refugees flowing into our country", Trump would suspend the programme to stop "generations of terrorism and extremism" spreading in schools and communities. "We will keep radical Islamic terrorists the hell out of our country." Up go the chants of "USA, USA". Concord is derived from French. It means "with harmony". Donald Trump
walks back along the runway with two members of his security detail a couple of metres behind him. He stops two or three times, claps and points. He reaches the end and with his left hand pulls aside the curtain to the opposite side. His grip is almost dainty. With his right hand he gives the thumbs-up. He goes through the curtain without looking back. This is the second of his three rallies today. He has flown in from Berwyn, Pennsylvania and is going on to Selma, near Raleigh. Backstage the chips and cookies are unopened. A Ziploc-style bag containing chocolate chip cookies, a card reading I Voted Trump and a used hand towel are on the small square table. On the table in the dressing room are two wrappers, one from a MilkyWay mini and the other from one of the red and white striped lollies. Donald Trump has left the building.
Race to the WHITE HOUSE: Key states to watch
Voters head to the polls on Tuesday US time, so all the action is Wednesday in New Zealand. How long a TV-gaping marathon we will endure will depend, of course, on how close a race it turns out to be. A decisive win for either Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton could mean that by 5pm on Wednesday we could be done bar the whooping, the tears and the victory and concession speeches. Both candidates are expected to hold their election night parties - or wakes - in New York City. Among the first states to close all of their polling stations will be Indiana and Kentucky at 12 noon, though victories in both states for Trump would not tell us very much. (If he loses them, that would be a different thing, however.)
But watch out. Florida, where Trump has to prevail if he is to hold open a path to final victory, also finishes voting at 12 noon. That assumes, as in every state, there are no problems on voting day, like misbehaving voting machines (or misbehaving humans), which could prompt extensions of voting hours, as sometimes happens. Two things also to keep in mind. Little by way of exit polling information will be released while the final outcome is still in the balance, to avoid influencing how people vote in the West. Also, ballots are counted precinct by precinct and it may take some states longer than others to provide enough final data to allow the TV networks to project a winner in each of them. The Sunshine State offers a whopping 29 votes in the Electoral College. Whoever reaches 270 votes in the College will be the next president. Half an hour after Florida comes North Carolina, another battleground state (12.30pm). A victory there for Trump would be significant. Ohio also closes at that hour. As with Florida, a loss in Ohio, with 18 College votes, could doom Trump. Once we get to 1pm, the results should start coming in thick and fast with a swathe of states closing their polling stations, including Pennsylvania, where any sign of a Trump win could also influence the night, as well as Texas, New Jersey, Massachusetts and Maryland. At 2pm, we will start hearing from some of those states in the middle of the country where the race has been fierce, for instance Colorado, New Mexico and Arizona. New York shuts up shop then also, but a loss there for Clinton would indeed be a shock. Iowa is a latecomer, with polling over only at 3pm, which is also when we could start hearing results from Nevada, another key state. Those with stamina will then await results from western states like California at 4pm and, at the end, Alaska (a Republican stronghold) at 5pm. But by then, the outcome may already be known. Then again it might not. A very, very close election, or even a very tight loss by Trump followed by some kind of challenge from him, could well take us into the next day, or even beyond were we to get a repeat of the disputed results of the 2000 elections, thanks to Florida and its hanging chads. That year, nothing was settled for a further 36 days.