Donald Trump stunning achievement: 'The greatest rise in the history of politics'

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This College Course is Trying to Decode Donald Trump

When Donald Trump began his improbable campaign for the White House almost a year ago, it's safe to believe almost no one, including himself, envisioned he'd be where he is today.

The second line of the U.S. News story covering Trump's June 16, 2015, entry into the 2016 contest stated that he began "with unmatched star power, unfiltered rhetorical bravado, gobs of money and little chance of victory." The New York Times characterized Trump as a "remote prospect" for Republicans. The Washington Post assumed he'd face "an uphill battle to be taken seriously by his rivals."

SEE ALSO: Hillary Clinton is not worried about an indictment over her State Department email

And then Trump mounted one of the most unorthodox, rule-shattering campaigns in the history of American politics.

With the final five GOP primaries in the books, the 69-year-old New York City real estate mogul is now the de facto Republican Party presidential nominee, having vanquished 16 opponents, won 36 states and collected more than 12 million votes.

"It's the greatest rise in the history of politics," says Corey Lewandowski, Trump's campaign manager.

While the feat is easy to take for granted now, given Trump's unceasing presence in the news cycle, the endeavor was always a high-risk gamble – much like many of his business pursuits.

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The final chapter of Trump's 2016 adventure has yet to be written. But even if he falls short of the presidency in November, his candidacy will be remembered as a historic one that reshuffled the GOP and rewrote the conventional political playbook.

Here's a walk-through of the most crucial moments of Trump's unlikely ascent over the last 12 months.

The Announcement

After years of taunts and teases, Trump's audacity to finally pull the trigger on a candidacy was jolting to the system in itself.

What came out of his mouth during his unscripted 45-minute launch at Trump Tower turned out to be a series of tremors that would shake the party to its core.

FLASHBACK: Check out Trump's announcement in June 2015

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Donald Trump announces campaign for presidency
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Donald Trump stunning achievement: 'The greatest rise in the history of politics'
U.S. Republican presidential candidate, real estate mogul and TV personality Donald Trump makes a point as he formally announces his campaign for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination during an event at Trump Tower in New York June 16, 2015. REUTERS/Brendan McDermid
U.S. Republican presidential candidate, real estate mogul and TV personality Donald Trump acknowledges supporters next to his wife, Melania, before formally announcing his campaign for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination during an event at Trump Tower in New York June 16, 2015. REUTERS/Brendan McDermid
U.S. Republican presidential candidate, real estate mogul and TV personality Donald Trump arrives by escalator inside at Trump Tower to announce his campaign for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination in New York June 16, 2015. REUTERS/Brendan McDermid
NEW YORK, NY - JUNE 16: Business mogul Donald Trump gives a speech as he announces his candidacy for the U.S. presidency at Trump Tower on June 16, 2015 in New York City. Trump is the 12th Republican who has announced running for the White House. (Photo by Christopher Gregory/Getty Images)
U.S. Republican presidential candidate, real estate mogul and TV personality Donald Trump formally announces his campaign for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination during an event at Trump Tower in New York June 16, 2015. REUTERS/Brendan McDermid
Ivanka Trump, daughter of real estate mogul and TV personality Donald Trump, introduces her father prior to his formally announcing his campaign for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination during an event at Trump Tower in New York June 16, 2015. REUTERS/Brendan McDermid
Trump supporters wait for U.S. Republican presidential candidate, real estate mogul and TV personality Donald Trump to formally announce his campaign for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination during an event at Trump Tower in New York June 16, 2015. REUTERS/Brendan McDermid
U.S. Republican presidential candidate, real estate mogul and TV personality Donald Trump formally announces his campaign for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination during an event at Trump Tower in New York June 16, 2015. REUTERS/Brendan McDermid
Trump supporters wait for U.S. Republican presidential candidate, real estate mogul and TV personality Donald Trump to formally announce his campaign for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination during an event at Trump Tower in New York June 16, 2015. REUTERS/Brendan McDermid
U.S. Republican presidential candidate, real estate mogul and TV personality Donald Trump gestures as he formally announces his campaign for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination during an event at Trump Tower in New York June 16, 2015. REUTERS/Brendan McDermid
U.S. Republican presidential candidate, real estate mogul and TV personality Donald Trump gives a thumbs up while he poses with his family after formally announcing his campaign for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination during an event at Trump Tower in New York June 16, 2015. The Trump family from L; Eric Trump and his wife Lara, Donald Trump, son Barron, Melania Trump, Vanessa Haydon and her husband Donald Trump Jr., children Kia Trump and Donald Trump III, Ivanka Trump and her husband Jared Kushner and Tiffany Trump. REUTERS/Brendan McDermid
U.S. Republican presidential candidate, real estate mogul and TV personality Donald Trump formally announces his campaign for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination during an event at Trump Tower in New York June 16, 2015. REUTERS/Brendan McDermid
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He threw a gauntlet down on immigration, alienating Hispanics but endearing himself to hard-line conservatives with a missive against immigrants from Mexico: "They're bringing drugs. They're bringing crime. They're rapists. And some, I assume, are good people."

In what was a precursor of the relentlessly emasculating onslaught to come, he took relish in mocking the presumed front-running candidacy of Jeb Bush, who had formally launched his campaign a day earlier.

"I don't see how he can possibly get the nomination. He's weak on immigration. He's in favor of Common Core. How the hell can you vote for this guy?" Trump asked.

And he unfurled his characteristic braggadocio with an over-the-top vow to be "the greatest jobs president that God ever created."

Looking back, that first speech was a remarkably reliable template of what Trump's candidacy ultimately would encompass: extravagant branding, incessant Bush-bashing and a nativist immigration plan.

An NBC poll at the time showed that three-quarters of Republicans said they wouldn't support Trump. But by the time the first primary debate rolled around, he was in first place in the polls. Still, he looked like a flash in the pan, a summer fling, a gift to the late-night comics.

And then he upped the ante again.

The First Debate

Fox News opened the inaugural Republican presidential primary debate in Cleveland last August with a question crafted to put Trump on the spot: Would he ultimately support the Republican nominee, even if it was not him?

In the days leading up to the debate, Trump was openly hinting he might not, leaving the door wide open for an independent run that almost certainly would hand Democrats another term in the White House. But with an estimated 24 million viewers tuned in, getting Trump on the record on the question in such a high-profile forum would have a colossal impact.

SEE ALSO: One candidate stole the show at the early GOP debate with a rant about the Democratic field

His refusal to raise his hand to sign on to party unity was one of his earliest and most brazen gambits. Trump couldn't even restrain a menacing smile as he was roundly booed by the live audience. Even moderator Bret Baier appeared taken aback.

"Mr. Trump, to be clear, you're standing on a Republican primary debate stage, the place where the RNC will give the nominee the nod. . . . You can't say tonight that you would make that pledge?" Baier pressed.

"I cannot say," Trump replied.

This was one of the litany of supposed offenses Trump committed that pundits figured would doom him. But in reality, it only reinforced his independence from political institutions and his courage to go against the grain.

FLASHBACK: Trump pledges his support to the Republican Party

Donald Trump Pledges His Allegiance to the Republican Party

"Everyone else gave that bull answer," Lewandowski recalls. "Look where we are now. A number of people on that stage still haven't supported the Republican nominee. Because they're politicians: all talk, no action."

Later, Trump was confronted by co-moderator Megyn Kelly with a list of degrading comments he had made about women over the years. Again, his defiant rebuttal led to something no revered Washington consultant would ever recommend in a Republican primary: an ugly personal spat with Fox News' brightest star.

But in taking on Fox, Trump again underlined how radically different his candidacy was from anyone else's. Most commentators underestimated how much Republican voters yearned for a take-no-prisoners fighter, but Trump sensed it and seized it.

SEE ALSO: Paul Ryan blasts Trump's comments as 'textbook' racism

His monthslong feud with Kelly demonstrated his willingness to take great risk and buck convention on a grand stage.

As Lewandowski puts it, "Donald Trump is not afraid to lose this election, but he's not afraid to win."

The Muslim Ban

In the wake of the San Bernardino, California, terror attacks on the second day of December, Trump was sitting on his airplane being ferried around the country, stewing that something drastic needed to be done.

The two responsible for massacring 14 people during an office holiday party were Islamic State group sympathizers. Just three weeks prior, the terrorist group coordinated a series of simultaneous attacks in Paris, killing 130 people and unleashing a wave of palpable fear throughout the globe.

SEE ALSO: Muslim woman removed from Trump rally after silently protesting

In South Carolina on Dec. 7 – the anniversary of Pearl Harbor – Trump went onstage and, uncharacteristically, carefully read a statement calling for a "total and complete" ban on Muslims entering the U.S.

"We have no choice, we have no choice," he said to cheers.

The proposed temporary barring of Muslims was panned by members of both parties, leaders of religious groups and international heads of state.

See Donald Trump through the years

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Donald Trump through the years
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Donald Trump stunning achievement: 'The greatest rise in the history of politics'
Donald Trump pauses in his apartment 5/20 after receiving the news that the Board of Estimate unanimously approved a 40-year tax abatement plan. Under the plan Trump will purchase and refurbish the Commodore Hotel, which closed into doors 5/18, from the Penn Central Transportation Corp. In return for his $10-million-dollar purchase and up to $100 million face-lifting investment, Trump will have no real estate taxes for 40 years.

(Bettmann via Getty Images)

Real estate developer Donald Trump announces intentions to build a $100 million dollar Regency Hotel.

(Photo by John Pedin/NY Daily News via Getty Images)

Donald Trump with Alfred Eisenpreis, New York City Economic Development Administrator. Sketch of new 1,400 room Renovation project of Commodore Hotel.

(Photo by NY Daily News Archive via Getty Images)

Donald Trump stands behind architect's model of City Hall Plaza.

(Photo by Frank Russo/NY Daily News Archive via Getty Images)

Donald Trump and Ivana Trump attend Roy Cohn's birthday party in February 1980 in New York City.

(Photo by Sonia Moskowitz/Getty Images)

Donna Mills and Donald Trump during 1983 Annual American Image Awards at Sheraton Center in New York City, New York, United States.

(Photo by Ron Galella, Ltd./WireImage)

Donald Trump attends 38th Annual Horatio Alger Awards Dinner on May 10, 1985 at the Waldorf Hotel in New York City.

(Photo by Ron Galella/WireImage)

Portrait of real estate mogul Donald John Trump (b.1946), smiling slightly and facing to his right, 1983. New York.

(Photo by Bachrach/Getty Images)

Boxing promoter Don King holds up the arms of Mike Tyson and former champion Larry Holmes during a press conference here 12/1. Looking on is Donald Trump. The fight will be held at the Trump Plaza Hotel.

(Bettmann via Getty Images)

Donald Trump, real estate mogul, entrepreneur, and billionare poses in the foyer of his home in August 1987 in Greenwich, Connecticut.

(Photo by Joe McNally/Getty Images)

Donald Trump Jr. and Donald Trump during 1988 U.S. Open - September 3, 1988 at Flushing Meadows Corona Park in Queens, New York, United States.

(Photo by Ron Galella, Ltd./WireImage)

Ivana Trump and Donald Trump during Mike Tyson vs Michael Spinks Fight at Trump Plaza - June 27, 1988 at Trump Plaza in Atlantic City, New Jersey, United States.

(Photo by Ron Galella/WireImage)

Billionaire Donald Trump and his wife Ivana arrive 04 December 1989 at a social engagement in New York.

(Photo credit should read SWERZEY/AFP/Getty Images)

Donald Trump and Daughter Ivanka Trump during Maybelline Presents 1991 Look of the Year at Plaza Hotel in New York City, New York, United States.

(Photo by Ron Galella/WireImage)

Donald Trump attends 'Hoop-La' Special Olympics Basketball Game on June 25, 1992 at the Plaza Hotel in New York City.

(Photo by Ron Galella/WireImage)

Donald Trump and Joan Rivers during Opening of The Rose Room in the Plaza Hotel at Plaza Hotel Rose Room in New York City, New York, United States.

(Photo by Ron Galella, Ltd./WireImage)

Donald Trump touches 07 April 1993 Marla Maples stomach to confirm published reports that the actress is pregnant with his child. The two arrived for Maples appearance in the Broadway musical 'The Will Rogers Follies'.

(HAI DO/AFP/Getty Images)

US business tycoon Donald Trump enters the PLaza Hotel in New York past supporters 21 December 1994. Hundreds of supporters showed up at a news conference where Trump denied a New York newspaper report that the Sultan of Brunei had bid 300 million USD to buy the Manhattan hotel.

(Photo credit should read DON EMMERT/AFP/Getty Images)

Donald Trump and Christine Whitman during Opening of New Warner Bros. Store in Trump Plaza Casino at Trump Plaza Casino in Atlantic City, New Jersey, United States.

(Photo by Ron Galella/WireImage)

Donald Trump attends Marc Jacobs Fashion Show on April 4, 1995 at the Plaza Hotel in New York City.

(Photo by Ron Galella/WireImage)

Boxing: IBC Heavyweight Title: View of celebrity businessman Donald Trump and actor Steven Seagal seated ringside during Lennox Lewis vs Tommy Morrison fight at Boardwalk Convention Hall. Atlantic City, NJ. (Photo by John Iacono /Sports Illustrated/Getty Images) 

New York real estate giant Donald Trump poses in his Trump Tower office on a giant letter 'T' on May 8, 1996.

(TIMOTHY A. CLARY/AFP/Getty Images)

Portrait of Marla Maples and her husband, businessman Donald Trump, with their daughter Tiffany, as they pose together at the Mar-a-Lago estate, Palm Beach, Florida, 1996.

(Photo by Davidoff Studios/Getty Images)

Donald Trump and Ron Delsner backstage at a KISS concert at Madison Squre Garden in New York City on July 25, 1996.

(Photo by Ebet Roberts/Redferns)

Donald Trump attending Halloween party thrown by Naomi Campbell and Kate Moss at the Supper Club to kick off Fashion Week.  

(Photo by Richard Corkery/NY Daily News via Getty Images)

Donald Trump open his new building at 1 Center Park West- The new Trump International Hotel and Tower.

(Photo byJames Hughes/NY Daily News via Getty Images)

Donald Trump and his girlfriend Celina Midelfar watch Conchita Martinez and Amanda Coetzer 07 September at US Open in Flushing Meadows, NY.

(TIMOTHY CLARY/AFP/Getty Images)

Celine Dion, husband Rene, Donald Trump & Ivanka Trump

(Photo by KMazur/WireImage)

Entrepreneur Donald Trump and Rev. Al Sharpton speak at a ribbon cutting ceremony for Sharpton's National Action Network Convention April 5, 2002 in New York City. The group aims to further the development of civil rights.

(Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images)

Donald Trump and his girlfriend Melania Knauss attend the Marc Bouwer/Peta Fall/Winter 2002 Collection show February 14, 2002 during Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week in New York City.

(Photo by George De Sota/Getty Images)

Donald Trump at Madison Square Garden

(Photo by Alexander Hassenstein/Bongarts/Getty Images)

Donald Trump stands on the sidelines before the start of the AFC divisional playoffs between the New England Patriots and Tennessee Titans on January 10, 2004 at Gillette Stadium in Foxboro, Massachusetts. Temperatures have reached as low as 7 degrees in the Foxboro area.

(Photo by Al Bello/Getty Images)

Donald Trump, Visionary Business Leader award honoree, poses with his children Donald Trump Jr. and Ivanka at Fashion Group International's 22nd Annual 'Night Of Stars' at Cipriani's 42nd Street October 27, 2005 in New York City.

(Photo by Evan Agostini/Getty Images)

Eric Trump and Donald Trump attend the Chicago Bulls vs New Jersey Nets game at the IZOD Center on October 31, 2007 in East Rutherford, New York.

(Photo by James Devaney/WireImage)

 Donald Trump delivers a speech with his son Barron after he was honored with the 2,327th star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame on Hollywood Boulevard in Hollywood, CA, 16 January 2007.

(GABRIEL BOUYS/AFP/Getty Images)

Portrait of former model Melania Trump and her husband, businessman Donald Trump, as they sit together at a table during the 16th annual 'Lady in Red' gala, hosted by LIFE (Leaders In Furthering Education), at the Mar-a-Lago club, Palm Beach, Florida, December 4, 2009.

(Photo by Michele Eve Sandberg/Corbis via Getty Images)

Donald Trump sands with Miss Universe 2009 Stefania Fernandez of Venezuela prior to the Miss Universe 2010 Pageant Final at the Mandalay Bay Hotel in Las Vegas on August 23, 2010. Miss Universe is an annual international beauty pageant and along with the Miss World is the most publicized beauty contest in the world. California clothing company Pacific Mills founded the contest 1952 and was acquired by Donald Trump in 1996.

(MARK RALSTON/AFP/Getty Images)

US tycoon Donald Trump arrives to speak at the annual Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) at National Harbor, Maryland, outside Washington, on February 27, 2015.

(NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP/Getty Images)

Donald Trump speaks during the NRA-ILA Leadership Forum at the 2015 NRA Annual Meeting & Exhibits on April 10, 2015 in Nashville, Tennessee. The annual NRA meeting and exhibit runs through Sunday.

(Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

Real estate mogul and billionaire Donald Trump attends Golf legend Jack Nicklaus' Congressional Gold Medal ceremony in the U.S. Capitol Rotunda March 24, 2015 in Washington, DC. Trump announed on March 18 that he has launched a presidential exploratory committee.

(Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

Businessman Donald Trump speaks to guests gathered for the Republican Party of Iowa's Lincoln Dinner at the Iowa Events Center on May 16, 2015 in Des Moines, Iowa. The event sponsored by the Republican Party of Iowa gave several Republican presidential hopefuls an opportunity to strengthen their support among Iowa Republicans ahead of the 2016 Iowa caucus.

(Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)

Republican Presidential Candidate Donald Trump visits his Scottish golf course Turnberry with his children Ivanka Trump and Eric Trump on July 30, 2015 in Ayr, Scotland. Donald Trump answered questions from the media at a press conference.

(Photo by Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)

U.S. President-elect Donald Trump speaks at his election night rally in Manhattan, New York, U.S., November 9, 2016.

(REUTERS/Carlo Allegri)

Singer Kanye West and President-elect Donald Trump speak with the press after their meetings at Trump Tower December 13, 2016 in New York.

(TIMOTHY A. CLARY/AFP/Getty Images)

Republican U.S. presidential candidate Donald Trump poses for a photo after an interview with Reuters in his office in Trump Tower, in the Manhattan borough of New York City, U.S., May 17, 2016.

(REUTERS/Lucas Jackson)

 Coverage of the 2016 Republican National Convention from the Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland, Ohio, which airs on all ABC News programs and platforms. On this final night of the convention, Donald Trump accepts the party's nomination for President of the United States.

(Photo by Ida Mae Astute/ABC via Getty Images) 

U.S. Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump reacts to an answer his wife Melania gives during an interview on NBC's "Today" show in New York, April 21, 2016.

(REUTERS/Brendan McDermid/File Photo)

President-elect Donald Trump speaks to reporters following his meeting with Jack Ma, Chairman of Alibaba Group, meeting at Trump Tower, January 9, 2017 in New York City. President-elect Donald Trump and his transition team are in the process of filling cabinet and other high level positions for the new administration.

(Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

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Party chairs of the first three nominating states condemned Trump's call. House Speaker Paul Ryan said it was "not who we are as a party." Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell described it as "completely inconsistent with American values."

But a Washington Post/ABC News poll taken in mid-December found that a majority of GOP voters agreed with Trump. Republicans endorsed the measure by a margin of 59 percent to 38 percent, showing its appeal across large swaths of the GOP electorate.

It wouldn't be until weeks later that exit polls of the primaries showed similar results. In South Carolina, 75 percent of GOP primary voters indicated they agreed with Trump's position. In the five states that voted on March 15 – Ohio, Florida, North Carolina, Missouri and Illinois – about two-thirds of Republicans were on board with the ban.

Trump has since recalibrated his remarks a bit, saying the ban was merely a suggestion. But his willingness to foist the radical idea to the forefront of the debate underscored how far away GOP elites had drifted from the base of their party.

'New York Values'

Even in defeat, Sen. Ted Cruz ran an exemplary campaign that would've likely been successful if only a bigger, more unruly outsider hadn't come along. But perhaps the Texan's most singular strategic mistake came on the night of the sixth GOP debate, less than three weeks before the February caucuses in Iowa.

Feeling the pressure to stave off Trump in evangelical-heavy Iowa, Cruz expounded upon his geographical slight aimed at denigrating The Donald in the eyes of flyover country.

RELATED: See photos from that tense debate

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Donald Trump stunning achievement: 'The greatest rise in the history of politics'
Republican Presidential candidate businessman Donald Trump looks on during the Republican Presidential debate sponsored by Fox Business and the Republican National Committee at the North Charleston Coliseum and Performing Arts Center in Charleston, South Carolina on January 14, 2016. AFP PHOTO/ TIMOTHY A. CLARY / AFP / TIMOTHY A. CLARY (Photo credit should read TIMOTHY A. CLARY/AFP/Getty Images)
Republican Presidential candidates, businessman Donald Trump (R) and Florida Senator Marco Rubio shake hands after the Republican Presidential debate sponsored by Fox Business and the Republican National Committee at the North Charleston Coliseum and Performing Arts Center in Charleston, South Carolina on January 14, 2016. AFP PHOTO/ TIMOTHY A. CLARY / AFP / TIMOTHY A. CLARY (Photo credit should read TIMOTHY A. CLARY/AFP/Getty Images)
NORTH CHARLESTON, SC - JANUARY 14: Republican presidential candidates (L-R) Donald Trump and Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) speak during a commercial break in the Fox Business Network Republican presidential debate at the North Charleston Coliseum and Performing Arts Center on January 14, 2016 in North Charleston, South Carolina. The sixth Republican debate is held in two parts, one main debate for the top seven candidates, and another for three other candidates lower in the current polls. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)
NORTH CHARLESTON, SC - JANUARY 14: Republican presidential candidate Ben Carson participates in the Fox Business Network Republican presidential debate at the North Charleston Coliseum and Performing Arts Center on January 14, 2016 in North Charleston, South Carolina. The sixth Republican debate is held in two parts, one main debate for the top seven candidates, and another for three other candidates lower in the current polls. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)
NORTH CHARLESTON, SC - JANUARY 14: Audience members listen to the Republican presidential candidates participate in the Fox Business Network Republican presidential debate at the North Charleston Coliseum and Performing Arts Center on January 14, 2016 in North Charleston, South Carolina. The sixth Republican debate is held in two parts, one main debate for the top seven candidates, and another for three other candidates lower in the current polls. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)
NORTH CHARLESTON, SC - JANUARY 14: Republican presidential candidate Ohio Governor John Kasich participates in the Fox Business Network Republican presidential debate at the North Charleston Coliseum and Performing Arts Center on January 14, 2016 in North Charleston, South Carolina. The sixth Republican debate is held in two parts, one main debate for the top seven candidates, and another for three other candidates lower in the current polls. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)
NORTH CHARLESTON, SC - JANUARY 14: Republican presidential candidates (L-R) Donald Trump, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) and Ben Carson participate in the Fox Business Network Republican presidential debate at the North Charleston Coliseum and Performing Arts Center on January 14, 2016 in North Charleston, South Carolina. The sixth Republican debate is held in two parts, one main debate for the top seven candidates, and another for three other candidates lower in the current polls. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)
Republican Presidential candidate businessman Donald Trump speaks during the Republican Presidential debate sponsored by Fox Business and the Republican National Committee at the North Charleston Coliseum and Performing Arts Center in Charleston, South Carolina on January 14, 2016. AFP PHOTO/ TIMOTHY A. CLARY / AFP / TIMOTHY A. CLARY (Photo credit should read TIMOTHY A. CLARY/AFP/Getty Images)
NORTH CHARLESTON, SC - JANUARY 14: Republican presidential candidates (L-R) Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL), Donald Trump and Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) participate in the Fox Business Network Republican presidential debate at the North Charleston Coliseum and Performing Arts Center on January 14, 2016 in North Charleston, South Carolina. The sixth Republican debate is held in two parts, one main debate for the top seven candidates, and another for three other candidates lower in the current polls. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)
NORTH CHARLESTON, SC - JANUARY 14: Republican presidential candidate Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) participates in the Fox Business Network Republican presidential debate at the North Charleston Coliseum and Performing Arts Center on January 14, 2016 in North Charleston, South Carolina. The sixth Republican debate is held in two parts, one main debate for the top seven candidates, and another for three other candidates lower in the current polls. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)
NORTH CHARLESTON, SC - JANUARY 14: Republican presidential candidates (L-R) Ohio Governor John Kasich, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL), Donald Trump, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX), Ben Carson and Jeb Bush participate in the Fox Business Network Republican presidential debate at the North Charleston Coliseum and Performing Arts Center on January 14, 2016 in North Charleston, South Carolina. The sixth Republican debate is held in two parts, one main debate for the top seven candidates, and another for three other candidates lower in the current polls. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)
NORTH CHARLESTON, SC - JANUARY 14: Republican presidential candidates (L-R) Donald Trump, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) and Ben Carson participate in the Fox Business Network Republican presidential debate at the North Charleston Coliseum and Performing Arts Center on January 14, 2016 in North Charleston, South Carolina. The sixth Republican debate is held in two parts, one main debate for the top seven candidates, and another for three other candidates lower in the current polls. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)
NORTH CHARLESTON, SC - JANUARY 14: (L-R) Neil Cavuto and Maria Bartiromo, moderators of the Fox Business Network Republican presidential debate speak to the audience on stage at the North Charleston Coliseum and Performing Arts Center prior to the debate on January 14, 2016 in North Charleston, South Carolina. The sixth Republican debate is held in two parts, one main debate for the top seven candidates, and another for three other candidates lower in the current polls. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)
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"Everyone understands that the values in New York City are socially liberal or pro-abortion or pro- gay marriage, focus[ed] around money and the media," Cruz said at the Fox Business debate. "Not a lot of conservatives come out of Manhattan. I'm just saying."

Trump was ready, deftly recalling the city's resilience after the Sept. 11 attacks and how its citizens pulled together even as fear and "the smell of death" permeated the air.

"We rebuilt downtown Manhattan and everybody in the world watched and everybody in the world loved New York and loved New Yorkers. And I have to tell you, that was a very insulting statement that Ted made," Trump said.

Cruz knew he had been whipsawed: His face dripped of defeat, though he went on to claw it out in Iowa.

What he didn't calculate is how much that statement would come back to haunt him three months later, when the New York primary would matter.

Even after Cruz scored a win against Trump in Wisconsin, lending his campaign a lifeline for a comeback and a shot at denying Trump the necessary delegates, his momentum was quashed in the days running up to New York, where Trump not only had a natural home-field advantage, but a damning statement to deploy against Cruz. This is also the time period when Trump savvily began taking aim at a "rigged system" that rewarded crafty insiders rather than representing the popular will.

SEE ALSO: Donald Trump announces to the world that he won't call Megyn Kelly a 'bimbo'

Cruz ended up getting clobbered in the Empire State, sopping away any lift he had gotten from Wisconsin. And Northeastern states surrounding New York were just as hostile to the senator. In a recent radio interview explaining his loss, he lamented that the media ignored his success in April states preceding New York and noted that his poll numbers dropped "through the floor."

"It was devastating for Ted; he really misplayed that," Lewandowski says of the "New York values" remark. "He never thought it was going all the way to New York."

The Rout Through the South

It's difficult for Team Trump to pinpoint the one victory that was most important along the way. Lewandowski says the campaign actually hit its vote goal in Iowa (45,000), even as they finished second.

New Hampshire will always be sentimental because it delivered Trump his first electoral win. Their Granite State vote goal was 100,000; Trump netted 100,406.

But the South is where Trump unexpectedly vanquished Cruz, his most relentless nemesis.

That process began in South Carolina, where the entire establishment was lined up against the front-runner, from Gov. Nikki Haley to Sen. Tim Scott and Rep. Trey Gowdy.

Here, the Trump campaign actually fell short of its vote goal of 240,000 (Trump got 239,851). But his 10-point victory was the start of a rout through the South that dispatched Bush's wayward candidacy and unlatched Cruz's assumed lock on evangelical voters.

The Southeast turned out to be Trump's strongest region in the primary, as he carried every state there below the Mason-Dixon Line. The area was supposed to be Cruz's firewall, where his hard-line social conservatism would overpower Trump's less ideologically driven populism.

But on March 1 – the day of the so-called SEC primary – it was the South that broke Cruz's back and highlighted Trump's broad appeal, especially among groups with backgrounds nothing like his own: lower-income voters without college degrees.

They connected with Trump on a much more visceral level than biography.

Explained Scott Huffmon, a political science professor at Winthrop University in South Carolina: "He's screaming at people in power, which is what they would like to do."

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