By John Whitesides and Ginger Gibson
DES MOINES, Iowa – Republican front-runner Donald Trump skipped a presidential debate in Iowa on Thursday after a flurry of last-minute negotiations with host Fox News, holding his own rally a few miles away four days before the first nominating contest of the 2016 race.
Fox News Chairman Roger Ailes had three phone conversations with the billionaire real estate mogul on the day of the debate, a network spokesperson said, but the two failed to resolve a simmering feud that surfaced this week after Trump demanded that the network remove anchor Megyn Kelly as a debate moderator.
Trump offered to appear at the debate if Fox contributed $5 million to his charities, the network said. Fox said it refused.
Trump filled to capacity a 700-seat hall at Drake University, where he told the crowd he raised $6 million for a veterans’ group in a single day. His campaign did not say which group was getting the funds.
At the debate, Trump’s rivals mocked his brash style and criticized his decision to sit out the debate.
“I’m a maniac and everyone on this stage is stupid, fat and ugly, and Ben, you’re a terrible surgeon,” Senator Ted Cruz of Texas said to rival Ben Carson, a retired neurosurgeon, as the debate opened, saying he had now “gotten the Donald Trump portion of the programme out of the way.”
Former Florida Governor Jeb Bush, who has been a frequent target of Trump’s attacks, said he “kind of missed Donald Trump,” adding: “He was such a teddy bear to me.”
Trump was able to garner a tremendous amount of attention on Thursday without having to share much of the spotlight. Cable news networks CNN and MSNBC provided extensive coverage of his event.
“I didn’t want to be here, to be honest, I wanted to be about five minutes away” at the debate, he told the crowd.
Trump, who has accused Fox News, and particularly Kelly, of treating him unfairly, said: “When you’re treated badly, you have to stick up for your rights – whether we like it or not.”
Trump dominated social media during the debate, leading the entire Republican pack in Twitter mentions throughout the first half of the debate, according to data from social media analytics firm Zoomph.
Trump was by far the most-searched-for candidate on Google during the first half of the debate, at one point outpacing the second-most-searched-for candidate, Florida Senator Marco Rubio, by nearly four-to-one, according to Google Trends data.
Trump’s move to skip the debate could be a risky gamble ahead of Monday’s Iowa caucuses, which kick off the state-by-state race to pick the nominees in the Nov. 8 presidential election.
But his support in opinion polls, much of it from blue-collar men, has not wavered for months despite him insulting Mexican immigrants, threatening to deny Muslims entry to the United States and clashing with Republican establishment figures like Senator John McCain.
Two of Trump’s Republican rivals, former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum and former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee, attended his alternative event after participating in the “undercard” debate for low-polling candidates who did not make the main stage.
But Trump was a target at the main debate despite his absence, as his rivals took turns reminding debate viewers about his spat with Kelly.
“Don’t worry, I’m not going to leave the stage no matter what you ask me,” Rubio said.
Cruz, after a series of questions, said: “If you ask me one more mean question, I may have to leave the stage.”
(Additional reporting by Steve Holland and James Oliphant in Iowa, Doina Chiacu and Valerie Volcovici in Washington, Richard Valdmanis in Boston and Emily Flitter in New York; Editing by Jonathan Oatis and Peter Cooney)