MARSHALLTOWN (Iowa) • US Republican presidential hopeful Donald Trump has withdrawn from a debate with party rivals this week out of anger at host Fox News for not dumping a news anchor he dislikes, leaving the last encounter before Iowa's nomination poll without the front runner.
Mr Trump's campaign manager, Mr Corey Lewandowski, told reporters after a combative news conference held by the candidate on Tuesday that Mr Trump would definitely not be participating in the debate scheduled for today in Des Moines, Iowa, and there would be no backing down.
During a press conference before he addressed a large crowd in Marshalltown, Iowa, Mr Trump expressed irritation that Fox News - the cable network that dominates the Republican party's communications with US voters - planned to leave in place Ms Megyn Kelly as the debate's moderator.
On Monday, Fox News responded to Mr Trump's waffling over possibly skipping the debate by tauntingly saying he "doesn't get to pick the journalists", and it was "surprised he's willing to show that much fear" about being questioned by Ms Kelly.
And on Tuesday, after network president Roger Ailes declared that Ms Kelly would "absolutely be on the debate stage", the network issued yet another taunting statement, this one mocking two of Mr Trump's go-to rhetorical crutches.
"We learnt from a secret back channel," it said, "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."
On her programme on Tuesday, Ms Kelly observed: "What's interesting here is Trump is not used to not controlling things, as the chief executive of a large organisation.
"But the truth is, he doesn't get to control the media."
At that, Mr Trump told Mr Ailes and his network, effectively, to take a flying leap. "They're dealing with somebody that's a little bit different," he said of Fox. "They can't toy with me like they toy with everybody else. So let them have their debate, and let's see how they do with the ratings."
It was the most intense confrontation yet between two mutually dependent but increasingly antagonistic powerhouses of media and politics. Mr Trump, who has made the presidential race a riveting television spectacle, has overtly exploited the ratings leverage his candidacy has created to try to bend Fox News to his will. His absence could strip the event of much of its appeal for many viewers who have followed the presidential contest as much as a source of entertainment as for its political importance.
Rival Ted Cruz, appearing on a radio show, said Mr Trump's withdrawal from the debate "reflects a lack of respect for the men and women of Iowa", and challenged Mr Trump to a one-on-one debate on the radio show. "He can name his own moderator," he said.
Other rivals pounced, too. On Twitter, Mr Jeb Bush highlighted a response by conservative writer Erick Erickson: "So Donald Trump can't handle tough questions from Megyn Kelly, but he'll be able to handle Hillary Clinton. Hahahahahahahahahahahahahahahaha."
"Exactly," Mr Bush added tersely in his own Twitter message.
REUTERS, NEW YORK TIMES