By Letitia Stein
CLEARWATER, Fla. (Reuters) – While U.S. President Donald Trump tried to win over skeptics in Congress on Tuesday, he never had to worry about losing the faithful at the Quaker Steak and Lube.
About two dozen fans of the 45th president gathered at the bar and restaurant in Clearwater, Florida, still committed to Trump despite the tumult of his first 40 days in office.
They praised the Republican president’s first address to a joint session of Congress, both for its familiar content and his newly deferential tone.
“He nailed it. He knocked it out of the park,” said Dean Mears, 58, of Clearwater, who watched with about two dozen others under large-screen TVs that were tuned to Fox News, the president’s favored cable news channel.
Like Trump supporters in other parts of the country, they praised the president’s more inclusive and less bombastic language as he also promised that “America must put its own citizens first,” crack down on illegal immigration and build up the military.
The milder Trump contrasted markedly with the candidate who insulted his rivals during the 2016 campaign, recently branded the news media the “enemy of the people” and was caught making vulgar remarks about grabbing women on a decade-old video.
In Boone County, Kentucky, the vice chairwoman of the local Republican Party, Phyllis Sparks, said she liked that Trump “spoke not only to his base but to all Americans.”
Kirt Jacobs, a Louisville entrepreneur, said Trump “was all about we and very little, if any, about me.”
In the Denver suburbs, a voter who supported Marco Rubio in last year’s Republican nominating contest, said Trump validated her vote for him in November.
“He had a much softer tone – more presidential – but stayed true to his principles,” said Kathleen Johnson. “He wasn’t blaming people and sounded more comforting.”
A CNN/ORC national poll found that 78 percent of respondents who watched the speech had a positive reaction.
With 3 million tweets, Trump’s speech was the most tweeted- about presidential address to Congress, surpassing the previous record of 2.6 million for Obama’s 2015 State of the Union speech, a Twitter spokesman said.
‘STICKING TO WHAT HE SAID’
At the Quaker Steak and Lube, the praise began beforehand, with a rally on the sidewalk outside where supporters waved signs reading: “America First” and “Florida for Trump.”
They were mostly greeted by honking horns of approval, but also a few passing drivers who shouted expletives.
Trump won 46 percent of the national popular vote in last year’s election, 2 percentage points behind Democrat Hillary Clinton, but prevailed in the Electoral College state-by-state tally needed to win the White House.
Nationally, his approval rating has sagged to a low level for a new president, around 44 percent, according to an average of recent polls by Real Clear Politics. Trump has been shaken by investigations into his campaign’s possible ties to Russia, his misstatements about his levels of support, and a federal court’s halt to his executive order temporarily banning entry into the country for people from seven Muslim-majority nations.
Clearwater, on the Gulf Coast, sits in Pinellas County in the heart of Florida, where the past four statewide elections have been decided by about 1 percentage point.
Trump, a part-time Floridian, flipped the results from the last two presidential elections in Pinellas County in his favor after former President Barack Obama, a Democrat, carried the county in 2008 and 2012.
The county has long been a retirement destination, especially among those leaving the Midwest. It is about 75 percent white, 11 percent black and 9 percent Latino, according to 2015 census data.
Speaking just before the address, Ron Sanders, 65, a Baptist pastor living in nearby Seminole, Florida, wanted to hear Trump tackle illegal immigration, which the president did. He also hoped Trump’s speech would help to bring in line moderate Republican senators who have been critical of some of his early efforts, which is not yet certain.
“He’s sticking to what he said. It’s not discouraging Trump at all,” said Sanders, wearing a cowboy hat colored like an American flag. “He’s going full guns ahead.”
(Reporting by Letitia Stein in Clearwater, Fla., Steve Bittenbender in Louisville, Ky., Keith Coffman in Denver and Melissa Fares in New York; Writing by Daniel Trotta; Editing by Jonathan Oatis and Peter Cooney)