By Gabriella Borter
WILDWOOD, N.J., Jan 28 (Reuters) - New Jersey supporters of U.S. President Donald Trump prepared on Tuesday to welcome his first campaign rally in the state the same way they celebrate heroes from the New York Jets football team to native son Bruce Springsteen - with a tailgate party.
Braving cold weather in lawn chairs and under tents, they waved "Trump 2020" flags, decorated their dogs in pro-Trump bandanas and sported versions of his red campaign hat decorated with hair that evoked the Republican's distinctive coiffure.
"It's very family-like," said John Fenlon, a 26-year-old parks and recreation employee from Monmouth County, who said he showed up at 5:30 a.m., about 13-1/2 hours before Trump's expected arrival.
The Jersey Shore beach town of Wildwood, normally nearly empty in January, was abuzz, with restaurants and hotels packed despite the chilly weather.
Fenlon said the scene "sort of" felt like a tailgate party with two important caveats: "Not as many drunk people. ... And there are not two teams. There's only one team."
Trump's campaign rallies through the first three years of his administration have largely have been set in states he won in 2016. While he has been a regular visitor to New Jersey, which he lost by a 14-point margin, to stay at his golf club, Tuesday night's rally will be his first in the state, before a crowd expected to number in the thousands.
Some started lining up as early as Sunday, and by Tuesday afternoon, thousands were waiting to get a seat, with many resigned to the likely fate of watching on big screens outside the Wildwoods Convention Center. People passed out food, and some grilled hot dogs at pop-up barbecues alongside the winding line.
Trump was coming in part to reward U.S. Representative Jeff Van Drew, who left the Democratic Party last month in protest over Trump's impeachment. Van Drew's election as a Democrat in November 2018 marked a brief change in the conservative southern New Jersey district that had elected Republicans to Congress for the previous quarter century.
Brian Everswick, a 66-year-old retired truck driver, said he had driven 175 miles (280 km) from the northern part of the state hoping to see the president in person.
"I think it's fantastic he's representing Van Drew," Everswick said. "I believe there are more Trump supporters than they say, even in New Jersey."
The welcome was not uniform in a state where Springsteen, its beloved rock star, described Trump in a 2019 television interview as "somebody who I feel doesn't have a grasp of the deep meaning of what it means to be an American."
Progressive activist group Cape May County Indivisible had scheduled a "Trump: You are not welcome here" rally at the site, although it showed no large presence by early Tuesday afternoon.
Kevin Camp, a 27-year-old heavy equipment operator, said he was glad to see Trump visit his hometown.
"I've seen every Trump rally on TV. I haven't missed one since he's campaigned. This is the first one I've actually attended," said Camp, who had spent two days waiting for the rally with his girlfriend, Heather Karrer, 25. "We live 10 minutes away and we never thought he would actually be this close." (Reporting by Gabriella Borter; Writing by Scott Malone; Editing by Peter Cooney)