Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks at a event at Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa, Thursday, Jan. 28, 2016. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)
DES MOINES — Just a few miles from the debate hall, hundreds of Donald Trump’s most devoted fans are still packed into the Sheslow Auditorium, the same venue that hosted a Democratic presidential forum on Monday night.
In the seats, there seemed to be universal agreement that Trump had done the right thing by skipping the Fox News debate.
By doing so, Trump “is putting his foot down towards Fox News, telling them that their biased journalism isn’t going to happen anymore,” said Paul Bartosz, 29, an ethanol plant worker in Hartley, Iowa.
Thursday was the ninth time Bartosz had seen Trump. He wore a blue winter hat with the Trump campaign logo, a grey sweatshirt and a name tag that said, “F— Megyn Kelly.”
Kelly, a Fox News anchor, has been the focus of most of Trump’s ire towards the network. Bartosz said Kelly had treated Trump unfairly in a previous Fox debate because “she was making statements rather than asking questions and it was singling him out.”
Other devoted Trump followers sat amid a predominantly white and male crowd. There were local leaders of veterans service organizations, a Marine from Los Angeles who flew overnight to attend — even the three young “Freedom Girls” who recently performed a song written by a Trump supporter at a campaign rally in Pensacola, Fla.
The girls sat beaming in red, white, and blue outfits, but their father, Joe Popick, rebuffed media inquiries, telling reporters that “Tonight we’re just here as invited guests.”
Doug Banker, 36, the Marine veteran from Los Angeles, said he arrived in Des Moines Thursday morning and had just a few hours of sleep before getting in line. Growing up in Miami, Banker recalled seeing Trump several times at his hotels and golf courses in South Florida.
“I think he’s just brutally honest. I think he’s what the country needs as far as his skill in business, finance, get us out of this debt,” he said. “He could be a strong leader as far as our military. If I was still in, I’d love to have him as a commander-in-chief.”
Robert Burd, 71, a Navy veteran from Ankeny, Iowa, said Trump would easily win Monday’s caucuses because “people are very tired of people not getting things done. Trump has shown over the years that he knows how to get things done. He not only deals with governments around the world to get his business completed, but he has the ability to stand up and get things done. … He makes decisions based on input and he doesn’t take a month to make a decision and then back away from it.”
Several military veterans in the crowd conceded that Trump was using their plight as an excuse to skip the Fox debate — but they didn’t care.
“Everybody uses veterans to promote themselves,” said Daniel Gannon, 69, a Marin veteran from Ankeny, Iowa. “I have no problem with it if we get something back with it. Because without the publicity we get nothing.”
Robert Burd, 71, an Army veteran from Ankeny, said he first saw Trump during his first political campaign trip to Iowa.
“I want to see Don again. I appreciate his stance on a lot of things,” he said. “Donald Trump has the ability I believe to lead people and get things done.”