Republican presidential front-runner Donald Trump was a bit mellower than usual at the rally for veterans he held in direct competition with the GOP debate Thursday night.
A jovial and relaxed Trump shared the stage with his friends and GOP presidential rivals, and at one point left the stage for about half an hour to allow several wounded veterans to share their stories and urge struggling veterans to seek help.
“Isn’t that better than this debate that’s going on where they’re all sleeping?” the business mogul said after retaking the stage. “They’re all sleeping. They’re all sleeping. Everybody.”
It was a subdued and unexpected spectacle that ended several days of high drama over whether Trump would carry out his threat to skip the final presidential debate before the Iowa caucuses.
His decision to largely eschew politics at the rally, and instead to focus on the wounded veterans he was purportedly there to support, could help mute criticism that he was playing politics with the nation’s soldiers.
That’s not to say Trump completely ignored politics.
After saying he wouldn’t talk about the polls, Trump couldn’t help but tick through how well he was doing in every national and early-state survey.
He ran through his standard insults of opponant Jeb Bush and took aim at Fox News, which has emerged as his primary nemesis over the last few days.
“I didn’t want to be here, I have to be honest,” Trump said of the debate as he kicked off the rally at Drake University.
“I wanted to be about five minutes away [at the GOP debate] … but you have to stick up for your rights. When you’re treated badly, you have to stick up to your rights … and it’s something our country needs to do.”
The real estate magnate’s decision to skip the debate and instead hold a fundraiser for wounded veterans was a bold and controversial move that shocked the political world and left analysts scrambling to make sense of what it could mean for the party front-runner in Iowa just four days before the caucuses.
“Is it for me personally a good thing, a bad thing, will I get more votes, less votes?” Trump asked. “Nope. Who the hell knows, but it’s for our vets and we raised over $5 million so that’s not so bad.”
He later claimed the sum was closer to $6 million, and that $1 million of it was his own.
The move was also a significant escalation of Trump’s feud with Fox News. He’s been at war with anchor Megyn Kelly, believing she mistreated him at the first Republican debate in August when she challenged him on his past remarks as being derogatory toward women.
On Thursday night during Trump’s rally, Kelly was moderating the GOP debate.
The tipping point for Trump this week seemed to be a snarky press release that Fox News sent to several media outlets, mocking him for threatening to skip the debate and questioning how he’d stare down hostile world leaders like Russian President Vladmir Putin if he was willing to walk away from a fight with Kelly.
Trump claims top Fox executives have since apologized to him, but said it was too late to cancel his competing rally. “Fox has been extremely nice, the last number of hours actually, and they’ve wanted me there, they called a few minutes ago and said how about now?” Trump said.
“They wanted me to go and they apologized and all that … but once this started, there was nothing I could do.”
Some have speculated that he’s skipping the debate as an attempt to run out the clock. Late polling out of Iowa shows Trump pulling away from Ted Cruz, his closest competitor in the state, giving him little incentive to go head-to-head with the Texas senator this late in the game.
Regardless, Trump ensured that the spotlight was squarely on him in the final hours before votes are cast in the Hawkeye State. The move ensured that Trump would dominate headlines this week and it deprived the other White House hopefuls of much-needed oxygen before the caucuses.
Several GOP contenders sought to position themselves to gain from Trump’s radical decision to skip the debate.
The past two winners of the Iowa caucuses, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee and former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, both of whom barely register in the polls, attended the event after participating in Fox’s undercard debate.
Both were invited onstage and paid tribute to the veterans as Trump looked on.
“Let me be very clear,” Huckabee said. “Rick Santorum, Donald Trump and I may be competitors in a presidential race, but tonight we are colleagues in unison standing here for the … veterans of the United States of America.”
“The easy thing for him to do is to ignore that anyone else cares about our vets. … It says something about him that he’d bring us here.”