DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) — An explosive feud between Donald Trump and Fox News 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."
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 challenge 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?" Trump tweeted, referencing Cruz's birthplace.
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."
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 has promised to hold a simultaneous event to raise money for wounded veterans.
"I think it's typical Trump. He's betting on him making a bigger splash," said Don Kass, chairman of Iowa's Plymouth County GOP, who predicted the decision to skip the debate would benefit the real estate mogul.
"Frankly, you know, in the past, anytime somebody thought he did something that cost him, it didn't cost him," Kass said.
Trump is not the first Republican to skip a pre-caucus debate.
Front-runner Ronald Reagan skipped a debate held ahead of the 1980 Iowa caucuses and wound up losing the state to George H.W. Bush. But Reagan went on to win the nomination.
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.
"He'll show up. I've got a $20 bet on it," former Florida governor and GOP presidential contender Jeb Bush told reporters as he left a Des Moines campaign stop.
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.
The mocking Fox statement on Tuesday was the final straw.
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 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."
Taunting and juvenile, Trump and his campaign manager said.
But some conservative leaders suggested Trump was taking a risk by skipping the affair.
The debate is "going to be the Donald Trump hatefest," said Mark Meckler, one of the tea party movement's original leaders.
Republican operative Ryan Williams offered some perspective on the wild campaign season.
"The debate chaos is a fitting end," he said, "to a caucus process that has been nothing short of a complete circus."
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