An explosive feud between Donald Trump and Fox News Channel is overshadowing the final sprint to Iowa's presidential caucuses, injecting a new sense of chaos into the 2016 Republican contest.
On the eve of the final debate before Iowa voters weigh in, Trump refused to back off his decision to boycott Thursday's prime-time faceoff. His campaign insisted that debate host Fox News crossed a line with a sarcastic statement mocking him and continued to criticize moderator Megyn Kelly. In turn, Fox accused Trump's camp of trying to terrorize its employees.
"They think they can toy with Mr. Trump," campaign manager Corey Lewandowski said Wednesday on MSNBC's Morning Joe. "Mr. Trump doesn't play games."
Trump reiterated his plans to skip the debate in an interview Wednesday on Fox News, saying, "I just don't like being used."
In a tweet he said: "I refuse to call Megyn Kelly a bimbo, because that would not be politically correct," he wrote on Twitter. "Instead I will only call her a lightweight reporter!"
As the public clash intensified, Trump's Republican competitors hunkered down for a day of private debate preparations filled with uncertainty. Skeptical that he would follow through on his boycott, the other campaigns held practice sessions with and without someone playing Trump.
Some thought the absence of Trump could make another leading Iowa contender, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, a prime target for campaigns eager to spark a last-minute shakeup. Cruz challenged Trump to a separate one-on-one debate, a proposal that was dismissed by his opponent.
Even though I beat him in the first six debates, especially the last one, Ted Cruz wants to debate me again. Can we do it in Canada?— @realDonaldTrump
"Even though I beat him in the first six debates, especially the last one, Ted Cruz wants to debate me again. Can we do it in Canada?" Trump tweeted, referencing Cruz's birthplace.
Cruz renewed the invitation to debate, saying they could meet Saturday in Sioux City, Iowa. And two super PACs supporting Cruz promised to donate $1.5 million US to charities serving military veterans if Trump agreed to a head-to-head showdown.
"It's not really that Donald is afraid of me," Cruz said at a rally Wednesday night outside of Des Moines. "He's afraid of you. He doesn't want to answer questions from the men and women of Iowa about how his record doesn't match what he's selling."
Some foes saw the shakeup as an opening to rise above the ruckus.
"These kinds of theatrics by Ted Cruz and Donald Trump are an entertaining sideshow, but they have nothing to do with defeating Hillary Clinton," Florida Sen. Marco Rubio said. "We don't have time for these kinds of distractions."
Trump plans veterans event
Despite the attention, there was little sense that Trump's move would significantly change the trajectory of the Republican contest in Iowa. While the former reality television star holds a big lead in most national polls, he and Cruz are locked in a tight race here.
"My sense is those Iowa Republicans who weren't fans of Donald Trump before yesterday, this has only validated their opinion of him, and those Iowans who have been drawn to his passionate attack on the media and political elites in our country are even more emboldened by their guy today," said former Iowa GOP chairman Matt Strawn.
Trump has substituted mass rallies for normal meet-and-greet events, made inflammatory statements that would have sunk other candidates, and spent much of his time giving his views on television news shows and Twitter.
Instead of debating Thursday night, Trump will host what his campaign is calling a "special event to benefit veterans' organizations." The campaign on Wednesday evening formally announced details for the event, scheduled to begin at the same time as the debate — and just three kilometres away.
Campaigning Wednesday evening in South Carolina, Trump drew cheers when he noted his plans to return to Iowa for the fundraiser. But he made no direct reference to the debate, off-handedly saying, "I've not been treated fairly."
In Iowa, Plymouth County GOP Chairman Don Kass called it "typical Trump" and said the candidate could benefit by "making a bigger splash" with his own event.
"Frankly, you know, in the past, anytime somebody thought he did something that cost him, it didn't cost him," Kass said.
In December, Trump threatened to skip a CNN debate unless the network paid him $5 million, which he said he'd donate to charity. The network did not pay up, and he showed up nonetheless. And in October, he and rival Ben Carson's campaign threatened not to show unless their demands for a shorter run time and other conditions were met. The network adjusted and they appeared.
Remaining candidates could tee off in debate
Trump's Fox feud dates back to the first primary debate, when Kelly took him to task over derogatory statements he'd made about women.
It said the leaders of Iran and Russia "both intend to treat Donald Trump unfairly when they meet with him if he becomes president" and said "Trump has his own secret plan to replace the Cabinet with his Twitter followers to see if he should even go to those meetings."
Taunting and juvenile, Trump and his campaign manager said.
But some conservative leaders suggested Trump was taking a risk.
The debate is "going to be the Donald Trump hatefest," said Mark Meckler, one of the tea party movement's original leaders.
And one voter said he was deeply disappointed by Trump's decision.
"You don't like something, you don't whine," said Tom Moore, a 55-year-old casket maker from Asbury, Iowa. "Be a man, take it and answer the questions `cause you're going to get that from everybody."