DAVENPORT, Iowa — Just before Donald Trump took the stage at the historic Adler Theatre on Saturday night, Jerry Falwell Jr. sang his praises. He compared him to Ronald Reagan, a Hollywood actor that his father, Moral Majority leader Jerry Falwell, endorsed in 1980, rather than President Jimmy Carter, a Sunday school teacher.
Then he noted that there were things he didn’t know about Trump “because he doesn’t brag.”
That drew some laughs.
“He doesn’t brag about things I am going to tell you,” Falwell clarified, before citing a number of acts of charity by the GOP frontrunner, including helping out businesses that suffered when Maytag pulled its plant out of Newton, Iowa, some years back.
Two days before the Iowa caucus, this was a different kind of Trump rally — a tad more subdued, with less of Trump’s trademark moments that are apt to get airplay on all-news cable channels. In other words, the kind of softer pitch that would come from a businessman when the deal is signed and sealed but not yet delivered.
This wasn’t a rally per se, but a Q&A, with Trump seated next to Falwell, asking friendly questions.
“It seemed like Trump was more thoughtful, more complete with his answers, less bombastic,” said Greg Cromer, an aerial photographer from Virginia who is working on a project in the state and wanted to see Trump in person. “This is a Donald that I think a lot of people are going to like to see, the ones that are afraid of the bombastic-ness of the beginning of his campaign.”
Trump repeated his vows to build a wall around America’s border with Mexico, to restrict Muslims from entering the country temporarily, and he chided President Obama for making a bad nuclear deal with Iran.
There were the occasional bursts of superlatives and signature lines from the candidate. “We have to come to grips with certain things or honestly, we are not going to have a country anymore,” Trump said.
He saw some correlation between his much-discussed decision to skip Thursday’s Fox News debate and what he sees as a terrible agreement that Obama cut with Iran on nuclear weapons. Trump skipped the Fox News debate and held his own charitable fundraiser that raised $6 million to be disbursed to veterans organizations.
“I love Fox. I think Fox is terrific, but Fox was taunting me,” Trump said, adding that when it comes to negotiating, “You have to stand on principle.”
When it came to dealing with Iran, the Obama administration “was so weak and pathetic — they did not read (Trump’s boo) ‘The Art of the Deal.’ ”
He didn’t dwell as much as expected on the big news of the night — the slight lead he holds in the Bloomberg/Des Moines Register Poll, the last before the caucus on Monday and an indicator of who has momentum.
“The numbers were so good for me,” Trump said, before pointing to another poll result that showed him cutting into Cruz’s lead among evangelicals, a key voting bloc in the Iowa Republican caucuses. He credited Falwell’s “incredible spirit and endorsement.”
“I was actually happier with that than [the number showing he is] leading in the polls,” Trump said.
Falwell recalled the heat that his father took in 1980 for supporting “a Hollywood actor who has been divorced and remarried,” Ronald Reagan, over President Jimmy Carter, a Sunday school teacher, and suggested that there were comparisons this time around. “We need a businessman to turn things around,” Falwell said.
Trump was a bit wistful, in his own way, when recalling how his campaign started, “on June 16, when I came down the escalator.”
“I said, ‘We have to do this because what is going on is so bad in our country,'” he said. He asserted that the atmosphere of his announcement “was like the Academy Awards in the Trump Tower. You never saw so many cameras.”
What followed, he said, was incoming criticism for months, as his comments ignited controversy, yet he continued to top the polls and even gain support.
“My two big concerns are economy and security, and I think a lot of the other candidates now all of a sudden they are for everything he got flack for,” said Judy Knutson, who has a long time real estate business in Davenport.
If he doesn’t win, she said, “I will write him in and I will not be voting for anyone else.”
Knutson held in her hand a GQ photo layout of Fox News anchor Megyn Kelly, seductive photos that Trump retweeted last week. Knutson said she supported Trump’s decision to skip the the last debate, pointing to what she sees as Kelly’s unfairness to Trump during the first Fox News debate last August.
She had been a loyal Fox News viewer but says she has stopped watching.
“I think she’s pathetic. I think she tried to better herself on Trump’s back,” she said. “I have no respect for her whatsoever now.”
Trump’s rallies have gotten attention for their raucous atmosphere, including his taunting of the media and the occasional fight among supporters and detractors.
Before the Q&A began an announcer warned the audience that some anti-Trump demonstrators may try to take advantage of the moment. “Please do not touch or harm the protesters,” the announcer urged. There were no disruptions.