NASHUA, N.H. — Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump took a victory lap here in New Hampshire on Friday after making the unprecedented decision to skip Thursday night’s seventh GOP presidential debate — the last such event before the nation’s first nominating contest in Iowa on Monday.
“I did something that was very risky and I think it turned out good because I’m on the front page of every paper. I’m getting more publicity than if I — you know?” Trump said Friday to a room of about 800 people at the Nashua Radisson Hotel, breaking off as he threw his arms out to his sides.
The billionaire showman withdrew from the debate after a days-long feud with Fox News — which hosted the event — that centered on the Trump campaign’s insistence that moderator Megyn Kelly not be allowed to participate. Trump has repeatedly attacked Kelly in the news and on his Twitter account since the first GOP debate in August, when she pursued a tough line of questioning that he said was unfair.
The spat escalated after the network released a disparaging statement Tuesday jabbing the candidate’s qualifications for office. Trump, emboldened by his ability to draw huge ratings, abruptly decided Tuesday that he would not participate in the debate. His campaign instead hosted a rally benefiting veterans just three miles away from the debate in Des Moines, counter-programming the debate.
“When somebody doesn’t treat you properly, you’ve got to be tough,” Trump said in Nashua.
The gambit has evidently paid off: Trump shielded himself from potentially devastating questions and attacks from fellow candidates during the debate with no apparent or immediate damage to his brand. At rallies in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina this past week, supporters repeatedly said that they would not care if he skipped the debate.
“He stuck to his guns. He didn’t think the debate was fair. And I think that was good,” said Leona Ryan, 59, of Nashua before Trump took the stage.
Meanwhile, his chief rival for the nomination, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.), became the top target on stage, where the moderators knocked him on an apparent flip-flop on immigration reform and his rivals characterized him as calculating and inauthentic.
“[He] got really pummeled last night. Actually, I'm glad I wasn't there … He got pummeled! Wow,” said Trump while talking about Cruz. “He got beaten up pretty badly last night. I don't know what's going to happen to his poll numbers but probably they're not going up. And I was just told that ours went up because of what we did last night.”
“Isn't that something?” he added.
The Trump campaign has since played down the role Kelly played in the standoff, instead focusing Thursday on the network’s publicly critical — and many say extremely unprofessional — statements about Trump. Many political observers read the second statement Fox released with incredulity: “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.”
Trump said Friday that he did make Fox a final offer, asking the network to donate $5 million to a veteran’s charity in return for his participation. Fox scoffed and pointed to ethical concerns about money changing hands between a media organization and a presidential candidate. Trump said that "they were really unable psychologically to do that."
Trump told the crowd that, regardless, his event Thursday raised $6 million for veterans.
“You know, it tells you a little bit about risk because risk is interesting. You know, in theory I would have rather done the debate because [when] you’re leading, you don’t want to change the wheels, right?” he told the audience. “And I took a chance. I mean I took a chance, and it’s something you have to do.”