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How Trump Is Effectively Upending The Traditional Campaign Approach

LOURDES GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

Donald Trump landed his first major political endorsement yesterday from New Jersey Governor Chris Christie.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

CHRIS CHRISTIE: It is my honor and my privilege to introduce the next president of the United States, Donald Trump.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Now, Trump has previously dismissed the need for endorsements. He says he'd rather be with the people. Today, the people Trump's with are in Tennessee. Chas Sisk with member station WPLN looks at how that strategy is working in Nashville.

CHAS SISK, BYLINE: The Tennessee field office for Donald Trump is hidden in plain sight. There is a blue Trump banner out front, but the windowless one-story building has been swallowed by high-rise development, making it easy to overlook. Tie a few balloons to it and you'd expect it to float away, like the house from "Up." I'm looking for Trump's Tennessee field director, a political hand named Darren Morris. He makes it immediately clear he's not giving interviews.

DARREN MORRIS: We let Mr. Trump speak for himself, so he does a good job at that.

SISK: There's no campaign spokesman here or evidence of any of the other trappings of a conventional campaign - no energetic volunteers, no ringing telephones, just what appears to be a handful of staffers.

BILL HASLAM: I think it's safe to say there's a whole lot of people that didn't see where we are right now coming.

SISK: Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam ought to know what it takes to succeed in this state. Haslam spent two years preparing for his first governor's race in 2010. Although Haslam is a billionaire, he spent months lining up donors, arguing that a campaign needed buy-in from supporters to be effective. His staff included some of the state's most well-known political advisers. Haslam won in a landslide. Now, less than six years later, Trump is upending all of his assumptions.

HASLAM: I think what you're seeing is - in a changing media world, in a changing political party world, a lot of the things that political experts and people who are paid a lot to run campaigns would say here's how you do it is proven to be, at least for this point in time, not true.

SISK: The most recent poll of Tennessee voters shows Trump leading by double digits. What's not clear is how he's doing it. Other candidates have been working hard to win the state for months, especially Ted Cruz. The Texas senator started courting Tennesseans last summer, assembling a small army of tea party supporters and evangelicals. It's the same approach former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee used to snatch the state from John McCain in 2008. Chip Saltsman was the architect of that campaign.

CHIP SALTSMAN: Yeah, we had a pretty good ground game. We had a great slate of delegates. We had great volunteers - Huck's Army all across Tennessee.

SISK: Saltsman says Trump doesn't need the same level of help from volunteers, but more important than Trump's money is how effectively he's used new technologies.

SALTSMAN: It's literally a lot of Donald Trump driving the agenda via Twitter (laughter) via Facebook, via social media, doing a few events with huge crowds.

SISK: It'd be a mistake, though, to think Trump's rise is due solely to his ability to manipulate the media. Trump is spending money in Tennessee. It's hard to know exactly on what, but evidence of that spending is all around. When early voting started in Tennessee three weeks ago, Trump signs popped up at polling stations like mushrooms overnight. There's a call center and surrogates have been showing up at tea party meetings, but the Trump campaign has been careful to keep those foot soldiers out of the spotlight.

BILL KETRON JR: He's finding a different way to win. When he speaks, he's speaking to what people are thinking.

SISK: State Senator Bill Ketron is one of the few people affiliated with Trump who's willing to speak on the record. But even Ketron hasn't been asked to campaign for him.

KETRON: Trump's different. I mean, he's doing things totally different. I mean, he's paying his own campaign. He's getting all the media attention without spending the dollars.

SISK: Regardless of how Trump does in Tennessee on Tuesday, he's already rewritten the playbook for how to run a campaign here. For NPR News, I'm Chas Sisk in Nashville. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.