IOWA CITY, IOWA – Donald Trump refused to back down Wednesday from his threat to boycott this week’s Republican presidential debate, leading rival candidate Sen. Ted Cruz’ campaign to mock him as “Ducking Donald.”
Meanwhile, Democratic candidate and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders met with Barack Obama at the White House in what was widely seen as a chance for the president to display public neutrality in the heated and unexpectedly tight primary race to replace him — rebuffing suggestions that he favors Sanders’ rival Hillary Clinton.
The dual developments created new ripples of uncertainty days before voting in the presidential race that begins Monday in this leadoff state. Both parties were bracing for close contests in Iowa that will determine which of their two leading candidates will carry the momentum from a victory into the New Hampshire primary election the following week and beyond.
The Iowa voting will be the first test of whether political newcomer Trump’s unorthodox campaign can get the thousands of enthusiastic supporters who show up at rallies to turn out when it matters. Cruz, a blunt-spoken Texan widely disliked by his colleagues in the U.S. Senate, is believed to have assembled a strong get-out-the-vote operation.
Among the Democrats, Sanders is counting on enthusiastic younger voters to boost turnout to offset Clinton’s organizational strength. The two were locked in a close contest in Iowa.
Talking to reporters in the White House driveway, Sanders acknowledged he and the president have had differences, but he said he has largely backed Obama’s agenda. Sanders said the president has been “even handed” in his treatment of the candidates vying to replace him, and he showed no interest in trying to strike any sharp contrast with his host.
“We have got to do a lot better to protect the middle class and working families,” Sanders said. “But it’s also important to remember how far we’ve come in the last seven years under the leadership of President Obama and Vice President Biden.”
The White House said the president considered the 45-minute meeting a chance to discuss ways the two could work together and to talk broadly about the state of the 2016 race.
Trump, a billionaire real estate mogul, raised the prospect of skipping Thursday’s Republican debate as he blasted Fox News Channel for “playing games” and including anchor Megyn Kelly as a debate moderator. Trump’s campaign later said he definitely will not participate.
Trump said he would hold his own event in Iowa during the debate to raise money for wounded veterans. The billionaire businessman dismissed Kelly as a “third-rate reporter” who is bad at her job and had been “toying” with him — reprising a squabble that erupted after a debate Kelly co-hosted last year.
Kelly shot back on her nightly show, arguing that Trump is used to getting his way but can’t control the media. She said her network and CEO Roger Ailes had made it clear to Trump for months that they wouldn’t change their moderator line-up.
“I’ll be there,” Kelly said. “The debate will go on with or without Mr. Trump.”
Trump’s declaration was an unexpected, if not unpredictable, twist in the final days of the Iowa campaign. He had threatened repeatedly to boycott debates before, only to ultimately acquiesce.
By picking a fight publicly, Trump assured that even if he goes through with his plan not to show up Thursday, his absence will be the center of attention.