As the Republican presidential frontrunner Donald Trump hit a new high in polls, he threw the party establishment into turmoil with an abrupt announcement that he would skip Thursday’s presidential debate.
Escalating a long running feud with debate host Fox News Channel four days before the Iowa caucuses, the first nominating contests, the real estate mogul said he would instead host a competing event in the state to raise money for wounded warriors.
“And Fox will go from probably having 24 million viewers to about 2 million,” said campaign manager Corey Lewandowski referring to the fact that the Republic debates have become must watch television events largely thanks to the reality TV star’s antics.
“Why should the networks continue to get rich on the debates?” Trump himself told reporters at a news conference in Marshalltown. “Why do I have to make Fox rich?”
Trump had objected to the participation of Fox News anchor Megyn Kelly as one of the three moderators, claiming she has treated him unfairly with both her questioning of him at last August’s debate and her commentary since then.
Trump, probably the first major candidate to skip a debate, also took umbrage to a “wise-guy press release” that the network issued earlier on Tuesday saying it was inappropriately antagonistic and childish.
“We learned from a secret back channel 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,” the statement said.
When Trump read the statement, he shot back with a tweet, calling it a “pathetic attempt by Fox News to try and build up ratings for the #GOPDebate.”
He added, “Without me they’d have no ratings!”
Media analysts asked whether Fox would leave an empty podium at centre stage during Thursday’s event, which is the last Republican debate before the all-important Iowa caucuses.
But analysts were in agreement that, the debate boycott is unlikely to hurt Trump in the national polls even as he is accused of ducking face-to-face confrontations with his opponents and questions from debate moderators.
Trump’s announcement came hours after a new poll found him hitting a new high in the race for the Republican nomination with 41 percent Republican voters nationwide backing him.
Significantly more than two-thirds of Republicans said he’s the candidate most likely to capture their party’s presidential nomination, according to a new CNN/ORC Poll.
Trump’s backing was more than double the support of his nearest competitor, Texas Senator Ted Cruz, who notcheg 19 percent support in the poll.
No other candidate hit double-digits. Florida Senator Marco Rubio landed at 8 percent, retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson at 6 percent, former Florida Governor Jeb Bush at 5 percent, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie at 4 percent, and the rest at 3 percent or less.
Trump was also widely seen as the candidate best able to win in November with 63 percent of Republicans saying so, compared with 16 percent who saw Cruz as best positioned to win and 10 percent who named Rubio.
But in hypothetical general election, Trump appeared to fare slightly worse than either Cruz or Rubio when matched up against either Democratic frontrunner Hillary Clinton or her rival Bernie Sanders.