The cheering and clapping as the real estate mogul skewered his rivals, President Barack Obama and Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton gave it away.
With only a few weeks before Iowa’s first-in-the-nation nominating contest on Feb. 1, more than 75 supporters showed up for a Trump debate watch party at the barbecue spot. They listened intently as the front-runner squared off against six Republican challengers, verbally urging him on at times.
Shouts of “You tell ’em, Donald!” and “Amen!” greeted Trump’s best punch lines, although the crowd freely applauded several other candidates as long as they were directing insults at Obama, Clinton or Clinton’s chief Democratic rival, U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont.
“He did very well, he came across as very strong,” Georgia Hasan, a Pentacostal minister from Des Moines, said of Trump. “He is saying the things that need to be said and some people are afraid to say.”
Several attendees said they regularly came to debate watch parties at Jethro’s, where the waitresses wore red shirts urging patrons to “Vote Jethro.” Pat and Mariann Duff drove for more than 30 minutes from Indianola, Iowa, to join their fellow Trump supporters.
“I admire his honesty. He says the same sort of things I say,” said Mariann Duff, who first became a Trump fan from watching his reality TV show “The Apprentice.”
A few of Trump’s rivals did not fare so well. “Drop Out, John!” shouted one patron when Ohio Governor John Kasich was introduced. When the broadcast lost sound at one point, a man calmed the crowd by shouting “(Jeb) Bush is on, it doesn’t matter.”
Trump narrowly trails U.S. Senator Ted Cruz of Texas in recent opinion polls in Iowa.
The crowd grew quiet and listened closely when the two clashed over Cruz’s Canadian birth and what Cruz called Trump’s “New York” values.
Eric Durbin, a software developer in Stuart, Iowa, said he would probably back Trump because he thought he had the best chance of stopping Cruz.
“I really don’t like Ted Cruz,” Durbin said, citing the candidate’s work for George W. Bush and Cruz’s wife’s work for investment bank Goldman Sachs & Co. “He’s part of the cartel. I don’t trust him.”
Lonnie Creveling, a housecleaner from Des Moines, said Trump would stand up for her conservative social values – and she liked his pugnacious style.
“I like his toughness,” she said. “You can tell people won’t be able to push him around.”