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Military personnel walk along the National Mall in Washington on Wednesday - days before Donald Trump’s presidential inauguration.John Minchillo/The Associated Press

For people like Darlene Martin, this Friday will mark the fulfilment of a long-held dream.

At 4:30 a.m., she and her aunt will board the subway in a suburb of Washington for the ride to the U.S. Capitol, where they will watch Donald Trump become the 45th president of the United States.

While the swearing-in ceremony doesn't happen until noon, the two women are leaving nothing to chance. "I'm sure we won't be sleeping the night before, but it will all be worth it," said Ms. Martin, 55, a bookkeeper who lives in Chesapeake, Va. It's the first time in her life that she will attend a presidential inauguration, a reflection of her devotion to Mr. Trump. "I'm on cloud nine," she said. "Like [Mr. Trump] said, it's a movement and I truly feel like he is the closest thing to where we want this country to go. I feel he truly cares about the American people."

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When Mr. Trump is inaugurated on Friday, he will take office as the least-popular incoming president in the modern era, with approval ratings lower than any of his predecessors. The day after he is sworn in, large-scale protests are expected across the country.

But for Mr. Trump's supporters, his inauguration is cause for exuberance and hope – the moment when the goal they yearned for through a lengthy and bitter campaign finally materializes in front of their eyes.

Mr. Trump's fans are already converging on Washington.

At Reagan National Airport on Wednesday, some arriving passengers wore hats bearing Mr. Trump's campaign slogan, "Make America Great Again," while others carried garment bags holding gowns and tuxedos for the plethora of balls and parties surrounding the inauguration.

Doug Grammer, a Trump supporter from Rock Spring, Ga., had just arrived in the country's capital. Asked how he was feeling, he grinned and responded, "Optimistic." Mr. Grammer said he felt relieved the country would be heading in a different policy direction.

First on his wish list: a repeal of Obamacare, the health-care legislation that was a signature achievement of President Barack Obama's tenure. Mr. Grammer criticized the law for levelling a penalty on people who do not buy health insurance. "What are they going to do next, tax us if we don't drive a [Toyota] Prius?" Mr. Grammer said.

Mr. Trump has urged his supporters to show up in huge numbers for his big day, but attendance is unlikely to match the record crowds which gathered for Mr. Obama's first inauguration. An estimated 1.8 million people converged on Washington for that event in 2009. Local authorities are expecting less than half that number on Friday.

Lynette Villano, a grandmother from West Pittston, Pa., said her fervent support of Mr. Trump during the long presidential campaign cost her friends, caused rifts with family members and alienated some fellow Republicans. "But we trudged through and worked hard and believed in him," Ms. Villano said. "It will be so emotional to stand there and see it actually happening."

Ms. Villano is driving to Washington on Thursday in time to watch a concert for Trump supporters. On Friday, she will attend the swearing-in, the presidential parade and one of three official inaugural balls, for which she has purchased a flowing, dark-green floor-length gown.

"It's a wonderful way to wake up every day, knowing that Donald Trump is going to be president," she said. She asserted that changes had already occurred as a result of Mr. Trump's election, especially over the holiday season. "All of a sudden, it was okay to say 'Merry Christmas' again."

Nothing Mr. Trump has said or done since the election has dented Ms. Villano's enthusiasm. However, she is taking a "wait and see" approach when it comes to his handling of Russia and President Vladimir Putin. She is dismayed with criticism of Mr. Trump by Democrats and a handful of conservatives. "This whole thing of trying to discredit his presidency – wow, I just don't know how to deal with it," she said.

Ms. Martin, the Trump supporter from Virginia, is similarly upset with the incoming president's critics. "There are just so many naysayers out there who are against him, but he just keeps pushing through," she said with admiration.

She follows Mr. Trump on Twitter and appreciates the way it offers Mr. Trump an opportunity to communicate with his followers and bypass the media. "I always sort of look forward to that in the morning, because I know he is the one sending them," she said. "It's almost like I have a relationship with him."

Now, she is counting the hours until she witnesses Mr. Trump become president. "I am so, so excited," she said. "For the most part, everyone is there for the same reason. It will just be so wonderful to be surrounded by Trump supporters."

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