DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) — Donald Trump opened a Thursday rally coinciding with the final GOP debate before Monday's Iowa caucuses by telling supporters he would have preferred to be at the debate, but had no choice but to skip it after promising a boycott.
Angry over an escalating feud with debate host Fox News, Trump bowed out of the debate and held what his team called a "Special Event to Benefit Veterans Organizations" at a packed 775-seat auditorium at nearby Drake University instead.
"You have to stick up for your rights. When you're treated badly, you have to stick up for your rights," Trump told the crowd. "We have to stick up for ourselves as people and we have to stick up for our country if we're being mistreated."
Speaking from the stage at what felt like a cross between a televised fundraising telethon and a typical Trump campaign rally, Trump said his foundation already had raised between $5 million and $6 million for veterans since announcing the event. He said he's putting up $1 million of his own money and read off the names of wealthy friends he said had pledged major contributions.
Trump repeated earlier statements that Fox "very much" wanted him to attend the debate and said he'd fielded repeated phone calls from the network during the day. Fox News Channel issued a statement saying Trump had offered to appear at the debate upon the condition that Fox contribute $5 million to his charities, which the network said was not possible.
Fox News says Chairman Roger Ailes, in conversations with Trump, "acknowledged his concerns" about a statement the network had made in the days leading up to the debate.
Trump has said he's not worried about turning off voters who may be disappointed by his decision to skip Thursday's contest.
"We've had other voters that love what I'm doing because they don't want to be pushed around by the establishment," said Trump, who is planning to participate in the next debate in New Hampshire.
It was unclear exactly which groups would receive money raised from the event and new website Trump launched for collecting donations: donaldtrumpforvets.com. Contributions to the site will go to The Donald J. Trump Foundation, Trump's nonprofit charitable organization. The page says: "100 percent of your donations will go directly to Veterans needs."
Trump representatives had been reaching out to various groups, in some cases inquiring about their programs and finances. Among those contacted were the Green Beret Foundation, which provides care to veterans, and Fisher House, which provides free or low cost housing to veterans and military families receiving treatment at military medical centers.
K9s for Warriors, which trains rescue dogs to be service animals for veterans, received a call from a Trump campaign representative asking if the group was interested in accepting funds from the event, according to executive director Rory Diamond. Diamond said the group is non-partisan but would be happy to accept any contributions.
Two of Trump's presidential rivals have taken the stage at a rally Trump is hosting to benefit veterans as he skips the Republican debate.
Trump was joined at the event by two of his rivals, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee and Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum. Both took the stage at Trump's event after participating in the early, undercard debate for candidates whose poll numbers were too low to make it on the main stage.
Santorum joked that he didn't want his picture taken with the Trump campaign sign. He quipped that he's "supporting another candidate for president," but said he was happy to come out to support veterans.
Huckabee had earlier stressed his appearance should not be seen as an endorsement of Trump. He told the audience gathered at Drake University that he, Santorum and Trump may be presidential race competitors but said "tonight we are colleagues" in supporting veterans.