Trump event draws crowds, enthuses dedicated base

Trump speaking at boycott rally
Donald Trump speaks to a crowd of supporters and veterans at his debate boycott rally on Thursday night (Caroline Kenny/MEDILL)

By Caroline Kenny

DES MOINES, Iowa — After a public battle with Fox News, Donald Trump took to his own stage at the same time as the Republican debate. The former reality TV host starred in a show all about him, with some fundraising for veterans thrown into the mix.

Three miles down the road from the debate stage, supporters waited in the cold for hours to get a coveted spot inside Drake University’s Sheslow Auditorium. Television trucks converged from around the country and journalists listened for what Trump would say about Fox News after refusing to join the final debate ahead of Iowa’s first-in-the-nation caucus on Monday.

“When you’re treated badly you have to stick up for your rights,” Trump said to the crowd at the rally, alluding to the disagreement with Fox. “We have to stick up for our country.”

But the Republican frontrunner kept the insults to a minimum, focusing instead on the need to support military veterans and thanking his supporters for raising almost $6 million to help the nation’s former warriors.

Trump boycotted the Fox News debate after criticizing moderator Megyn Kelly, who asked tough questions at a GOP debate in August. When Fox executives refused his demand to remove Fox, Trump left the stage to his rivals and scheduled the veterans event and campaign rally nearby.

He faced an enthusiastic crowd of about 800, many of them veterans.

“He’s going to stand up for himself and our country, and this proves that,” said Jenna Bieri, 28, of West Des Moines, who watched the rally from outside in 30-degree temperatures. She said she is committed to caucus for Trump on Monday.

Hundreds waited in line to get perhaps their last glimpse at the candidate before they caucus on Monday. Many others drove from neighboring states after hearing about it just the night before.

“He is the main attraction in this presidential race,” said Braden Thomas, 22, of Chicago. The Drake University student said he plans to caucus for Bernie Sanders, but needed to “have some fun” and attend a Trump event.

Others liked the idea of Trump having the freedom to convey his goals and platforms without being attacked by debate-stage competitors. They also praised his decision to veer from Fox News.

“I think it’s a very genius move, very strategic,” said Rob Francis, 48, of West Des Moines. “He’s way ahead of the game, and the rest of them are just trying to play catch up.”

After their showing in the undercard debate, Republican candidates Mike Huckabee and Rick Santorum turned up at Trump’s event to show their shared support for veterans and praise Trump’s fundraising for the cause.

Attendees approvingly greeted the rivals’ support.

“Supporting veterans is a great cause and I’m glad that Santorum and Huckabee came out tonight,” Bieri said. “Who knows, maybe one of them will end up as Trump’s vice president because of this.”

During the hour-long rally, Trump invited veterans to come to the stage and speak about their experiences. A group of them presented Trump with his own Honor Ring, and the frontrunner paraded around the stage with it, pumping a fist with his ring out to the sounds of massive applause.

The veterans in the room were pleased with Trump’s promises to dedicate his time to bettering the lives of veterans and improving Veterans Administration hospitals.

“He’s the first candidate to start off talking about veterans,” said Dave Thornburg, 50, of West Des Moines, who served in the Army and works to support his fellow veterans. “The rest of them all wait until something goes wrong. This guy is doing the opposite.”

When asked about his caucus intentions, Thornburg said the Thursday night event opened his eyes.

“I’m definitely going to caucus for Trump now,” he said. “After what he did and said tonight, he made a statement and I trust he will get things done for us.”

Photo at top: Donald Trump speaks to a crowd of supporters and veterans at his debate boycott rally on Thursday night (Caroline Kenny/MEDILL)