Debate feud injects fresh chaos into Republican primary

DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) — An explosive feud between 2016 Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump and Fox News is overshadowing the final sprint to Iowa's presidential caucuses, injecting a new sense of chaos into the contest.

On the eve of the final debate before Iowa voters weigh in, Trump refused to back off his decision to boycott Thursday's prime-time faceoff. His campaign insisted that debate host Fox News crossed a line with a sarcastic statement mocking him and continued to criticize moderator Megyn Kelly. In turn, Fox accused Trump's camp of trying to terrorize its employees.

"They think they can toy with Mr. Trump," campaign manager Corey Lewandowski said Wednesday on MSNBC's "Morning Joe." ''Mr. Trump doesn't play games."

Next Monday, Iowa residents will gather in schools, churches and even private homes to choose among the Republican and Democratic candidates battling to be their party's 2016 presidential nominee — the first in a series of state-by-state contests to choose delegates to each party's presidential nominating convention.

Meanwhile, Democratic candidate and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders met with President 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 — refuting suggestions that he favors Sanders' rival Hillary Clinton.

Some thought the absence of Trump could make another leading contender, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, a prime target for campaigns eager to spark a last-minute shakeup.

Cruz challenged Trump to a separate one-on-one debate, a challenge that was dismissed by his opponent.

"Even though I beat him in the first six debates, especially the last one, Ted Cruz wants to debate me again. Can we do it in Canada?" Trump tweeted, referencing Cruz's birthplace.

Some foes saw the shakeup as an opening to rise above the ruckus.

"These kinds of theatrics by Ted Cruz and Donald Trump are an entertaining sideshow, but they have nothing to do with defeating Hillary Clinton," Florida Sen. Marco Rubio said. "We don't have time for these kinds of distractions."

Despite the attention, there was little sense that Trump's move would significantly change the trajectory of the Republican contest in Iowa. While the former reality television star holds a big lead in most national polls, he and Cruz are locked in a tight race here.

Trump has substituted mass rallies for normal meet-and-greet events, made inflammatory statements that would have sunk other candidates, and spent much of his time giving his views on television news shows and Twitter.

Instead of debating Thursday night, Trump has promised to hold a simultaneous event to raise money for wounded veterans.

But Trump has threatened to skip debates before. In December, he threatened to skip a CNN debate unless the network paid him $5 million, which he said he'd donate to charity. The network did not pay up, and he showed up nonetheless. And in October, he and rival Ben Carson's campaign threatened not to show unless their demands for a shorter run time and other conditions were met. The network adjusted and they appeared.

"He'll show up. I've got a $20 bet on it," former Florida governor and Republican presidential contender Jeb Bush told reporters as he left a Des Moines campaign stop.

Trump's Fox feud dates back to the first primary debate, when Kelly took him to task over derogatory statements he'd made about women.

The mocking Fox statement on Tuesday was the final straw.

It said the leaders of Iran and Russia "both intend to treat Donald Trump unfairly when they meet with him if he becomes president" and 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."

Taunting and juvenile, Trump and his campaign manager said.