US Republican presidential hopeful Donald Trump withdrew on Tuesday from a debate with party rivals this week out of anger at host Fox News, leaving the last encounter before Iowa’s pivotal nominating contest without the front-runner.
Trump’s campaign manager, Corey Lewandowski, told reporters after a combative news conference held by the candidate that Trump would definitely not be participating in the debate scheduled for Thursday in Des Moines, Iowa, and co-hosted by Google.
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During the news conference before he addressed a large crowd in Marshalltown, Iowa, Trump expressed irritation that Fox News planned to leave in place as a moderator the anchor Megyn Kelly, whose questioning of Trump at a debate last August angered him.
He also expressed displeasure at a Fox News statement on Monday night saying Trump would have to learn sooner or later that “he doesn’t get to pick the journalists” and that “we’re very surprised he’s willing to show that much fear about being questioned by Megyn Kelly.”
— Megyn Kelly (@megynkelly) January 27, 2016
“I was all set to do the debate, I came here to do the debate. When they sent out the wise-guy press release done by some PR person along with (Fox News Chairman) Roger Ailes, I said: ‘Bye bye, OK'”
“Let’s see how much money Fox makes without me in the debate,” he added.
The debate is scheduled for just days before Iowa’s caucuses, the first nominating contest for the Nov. 8 presidential election.
In the Democratic contest, news channel MSNBC and the New Hampshire Union Leader newspaper sketched out plans to host a debate in New Hampshire among front-runner Hillary Clinton and challengers Bernie Sanders and Martin O’Malley, a few days before the state’s primary election on February 9.
But the Democratic National Committee raised doubts about whether it would proceed, saying in a statement it had no plans to sanction the debate. It left open the question of whether it would punish any participants by excluding them from the remaining two sanctioned ones.
Spokesmen for Clinton, the former secretary of state who leads most polls, and O’Malley, a former Maryland governor, said their candidates would be happy to take part, at least in theory. The New York Times quoted the campaign manager for Sanders as saying the Vermont senator would sit out the unsanctioned debate.
Trump’s blunt-spoken candidacy has boosted ratings for the Republican presidential debates. The August debate on Fox News drew 24 million viewers, a record for a presidential primary debate and the highest non-sports telecast in cable TV history.
His boycott will leave Thursday’s debate without the leader in the crowded Republican field not only in Iowa but nationally. Ahead of Iowa’s caucuses next Monday, Trump leads in the polls over Texas Senator Ted Cruz, whom Trump dismissed as a “nasty guy” who “nobody likes.”
A boycott could prove risky for Trump as Iowa Republicans seek to take one more look at who they want as their presidential candidate. Rivals like Cruz, Florida Senator Marco Rubio, former Florida Governor Jeb Bush, and retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson could reap the benefits.
But Trump, a billionaire businessman and former reality TV star said he would hold a competing event to raise money for U.S. military veterans.
“How many debates do you have to do?” Trump told reporters. “The Democrats are finished with their debates. … The Republicans go on forever and ever and ever with debates. We have people on the stand who have zero (percentage points in the poll), who have one, who have nothing. So it’s time that somebody plays grown up.”
Trump has been engaged in a public spat with Fox News since the network hosted the first debate and Kelly asked Trump about his treatment of woman, prompting a stream of insults from the candidate.
At the news conference on Tuesday, Trump was introduced by Arizona’s Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio, who has sought tougher measures against illegal immigrants.
“Everything I believe in he’s doing and he’s going to do it as president,” said Arpaio.
Trump, pressed on his plans to build a wall along the U.S.-Mexican border and deport many illegal immigrants, defended his proposal and said he would be able to persuade the U.S. Congress to go along with his plan.
At his campaign event in Marshalltown, Trump expressed confidence in his position in the race, saying if he were to win Iowa, he could “run the table” and roll up subsequent victories in New Hampshire, South Carolina and beyond.
“Iowa is very important. So you’ve got to get out, you’ve got to get out and caucus,” he told his supporters.