- The Washington Times
Wednesday, January 27, 2016

DES MOINES, Iowa — The two most powerful voices in the Republican presidential primary are now in open warfare after Donald Trump withdrew from Thursday’s high-stakes debate hosted by Fox News, spurred by the network’s startlingly snide statement challenging the billionaire businessman’s ability to handle the presidency.

Mr. Trump escalated the hostilities Wednesday by announcing that he was carrying out his threat to hold an event to compete with the Fox News debate. He will host a “Special Event to Benefit Veterans Organizations” at Drake University in Des Moines, according to the campaign.

The event, destined to draw coverage from other news networks, transformed a war of words into a ratings war between the billionaire businessman and the country’s biggest right-leaning news network.

For voters, skipping the debate appeared to be a wash, reinforcing long-standing opinions without moving the needle on the race one way or another.

Iowans who supported Mr. Trump applauded the move, and people who hated him still do. But undecided voters — who hold the key to victory days before the nation’s first nominating contest — say the dust-up won’t sway them.

Many blame Fox News as much as Mr. Trump for the brawl.

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“I love Fox News normally. I don’t like that,” Susan Frye, one of the 30 percent of Iowa voters who polls show remain undecided, said about the network’s taunting of Mr. Trump.

She was referring to the Fox News statement that set off Mr. Trump:

“We learned from a secret back channel,” it said, “that the ayatollah and Putin both intend to treat Donald Trump unfairly when they meet with him if he becomes president — a nefarious source tells us that Trump has his own secret plan to replace the Cabinet with his Twitter followers to see if he should even go to those meetings.”

Ms. Frye, 57, a court reporter in Des Moines, said she was disappointed that Mr. Trump wouldn’t participate in the debate but added that it wouldn’t change her positive opinion of him.

For Fox News, Mr. Trump’s absence could be disastrous. The candidate said his presence has helped the previous debates set records for viewership.

“Without me, they’d have no ratings,” he said in a Twitter post Tuesday as the feud erupted.

Mr. Trump appeared Wednesday night on Fox News’ “The O’Reilly Factor” and sparred with host Bill O’Reilly about reconsidering.

“I’m not walking away. I was pushed away,” said Mr. Trump.

He stood by his criticism of Mrs. Kelly and insisted that withdrawing was the right thing to do and exactly the type of tough negotiating the Obama administration failed to employ for the Iran nuclear deal.

Mr. O’Reilly credited Mr. Trump with coming on the show, an appearance that was scheduled last week before the debate dustup.

“I don’t know any politician under these circumstances that would have come on here and done what you did tonight,” said Mr. O’Reilly.

Mr. Trump threatened to hold an event to compete with the debate and donate the proceeds to charities for wounded troops and veterans. He made good on the threat Wednesday.

The debate promised to be the final showdown before the Iowa caucuses Monday between Mr. Trump and his chief rival, Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, who are locked in a neck-and-neck race, according to polls.

Mr. Cruz’s supporters were particularly irate that Mr. Trump wouldn’t be on the debate stage, robbing their champion of the opportunity for a mortal wound.

“He’s a wimp. If he can’t stand up to a reporter, how is he going to stand up to Putin or any other world leader?” said a 50-year-old computer programmer who gave his name only as John and identified himself as a Cruz caucusgoer.

He mocked Mr. Trump and said that backing out because he was afraid of unfair treatment undercut one of the billionaire businessman’s chief arguments for why he should be elected.

“Not a sign of a strong negotiator,” John said.

The Trump-Fox News war grew out of an ongoing feud between the candidate and Fox anchor Megyn Kelly, who opened the first Republican candidates debate Aug. 6 by accusing Mr. Trump of calling women he doesn’t like “fat pigs, dogs, slobs and disgusting animals.”

Mr. Trump has said it was an unfair ambush and not an appropriate debate question. He said that when Ms. Kelly put the question to him, there was “blood coming out of her eyes, blood coming out of — wherever.”

The remark was interpreted as referring to Ms. Kelly’s menstrual cycle, but Mr. Trump denied that was his implication.

Ms. Kelly said she would not respond to Mr. Trump.

Mr. Trump later accused Ms. Kelly of cherry-picked polls in which he fared the worst to highlight on her show.

The dispute eventually expanded to include all of Fox News, and Mr. Trump refused to appear on any of the network’s programs. The boycott lasted less than a week.

When Mr. Trump threatened to drop out of Thursday’s debate, Fox News Chairman and CEO Roger Ailes said in a statement that Ms. Kelly “is an excellent journalist and the entire network stands behind her — she will absolutely be on the debate stage on Thursday night.”

Then Fox News issued the snarky statement.

Mr. Trump called it “childish.”

“They can’t toy with me like they toy with everybody else. So let them have their debate, and let’s see how they do with the ratings,” Mr. Trump said at a hastily arranged press conference Tuesday.

His exit also guaranteed he dominated the news coverage leading up to the debate. The event at Drake University likely will keep the focus on Mr. Trump.

Best-selling motivational author and corporate coach Suzanne Bates said the dispute will turn into another victory for Mr. Trump.

“Two antagonistic powerhouses in media and politics have collided, and it’s likely that Trump will win this round,” she said. “Trump’s apparent decision to bow out of the Iowa debate flies in the face of conventional campaign wisdom, but is likely to further strengthen his support. It confirms in the minds of many voters that Trump fears no one, is beholden to no one and bows to no one.”

Indeed, Trump supporter Dan Halstead said his candidate had “nothing to lose” in battling Fox News.

“What was it fueled by? You can’t help but think some higher power, some money is telling them how to spin things,” the 38-year-old furnace repairman said of the network. “I’ve lost my faith in unbiased reporting.”

• S.A. Miller can be reached at smiller@washingtontimes.com.

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