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Sweet: Trump asked Fox for $5M donation to appear in debate

Skipping the GOP debate on Thursday night, Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks at an event at Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa. | Andrew Harnik/AP

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DES MOINES — Snubbing a Fox News debate days before the Iowa vote, GOP front-runner and master marketer Donald Trump instead put on his own show on Thursday night. He was a high-energy host of a telethon, calling out pledges he got from his rich friends for vets and introducing guest speakers.

Trump himself promised to give $1 million to vets. The money for veteran organizations is being collected by The Donald J. Trump Foundation, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization. Trump announced he raised $5 million in all, then corrected himself — it’s really $6 million.

The venue for the Trump counter-programming was small by Trump standards: a 750 seat auditorium on the Drake University campus, a few miles from where Fox was hosting the last Iowa debate.

Since there is no conventional wisdom left to toss out the door when it comes to the political rise of Trump, I have no idea whether Iowa voters will punish Trump for not debating.

As Trump himself said on this point, “Who the hell knows?”

So why are we here?

“When you are treated badly, you have to stick up for your rights,” Trump said when he started his stream-of-consciousness riff. Trump quit the debate over one of the moderators and taunting tweets from Fox.

A Fox News spokesman said late Thursday night that Trump tried and failed to make a deal, talking to Fox chief Roger Ailes three times about “possibly appearing at the debate.

“. . . Trump offered to appear at the debate upon the condition that Fox News contribute $5 million to his charities. We explained that this was not possible and we could not engage in a quid pro quo, nor could any money change hands for any reason.”

OPINION

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At Drake, Trump compared what he did to Fox to what he would do to global leaders if he were president.

Noting all the cameras in the back, Trump gloated, “This is like the Academy Awards!”

To retaliate against Fox, Trump threw the Drake event together in about 24 hours using it as a reason to raise money for vets. In an attempt to drive down Fox debate ratings, Trump timed his appearance for about 15 minutes after the debate started.

He called to the stage two minor rivals who had wrapped up their underdog Fox debate: former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee and former Sen. Rick Santorum, R-Pa.

It was hilarious. Trump insulted them by saying if they did better, they wouldn’t be there. Santorum contorted himself — not quite standing in front of the podium with the Trump — because he didn’t want that to be the photo.

Huckabee joked he was there because he had nothing else to do at 8 o’clock, a reference to the prime-time Fox debate he was not a part of.

Donald Trump greets retired Army Sgt. 1st Class John Wayne Walding on the stage at Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa, on Thursday night. | Andrew Harnik/AP

Trump’s top Iowa operative, Tana Goertz — who met Trump when she was a contestant on “The Apprentice,” his reality show — warmed up the crowd waiting for Trump with this testimony: “He has a real clean lifestyle,” does not smoke or take pills. “He’s clean, squeaky clean.

One of the folks in the audience was Jason Skoland, 41, a captain in the U.S. Army from Clemon, Iowa. I talked to Skoland while we were waiting for the event to start. He said he will caucus for the first time on Monday and will vote for Trump because “I respect his values” and “the fact he is not a mainstream politician.”

Jennifer Rysdam, 40, a registered nurse from Bloomfield, Iowa, also will caucus Monday for the first time. She’s for Trump because “our country is at the point where I think people need to step up and start using our voices.”

Earlier in the day, I talked about Trump with political consultant Frank Luntz.

Trump got this far, Luntz said, because he “is genuine. There is chaos, there is confusion.”

“There is inconsistency, but he is genuine and voters believe if he says what he means and means what he says, and they believe that he’ll do as he promised,” Luntz said. “He is not a politician, and so they have more faith that what he says is what he will do.”

Supporters of Trump “excuse everything that would have destroyed other candidates because they like his persona so much. It’s not his policies that turn people on, it’s his persona.

Said Luntz: Trump “has defied every expectation up to this point. There is no reason to assume that anything will change. A dozen things should have killed him already and they haven’t. So why should something get in his way?”

Follow Lynn Sweet on Twitter: @LynnSweet

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