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Donald Trump hijacks Fox News Republican debate before Iowa caucuses

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Des Moines, Iowa: Whatever you think of his politics, you have to admit that Donald Trump has a genius for show business.

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Four nights before the crucial first contest of the primary campaign, the Iowa caucuses, Trump managed to hijack the Republican Party's debate and turn it into a reality TV show starring himself.

Miffed that the debate's hosts, Fox News, refused to allow him to set the terms, and even had the temerity to mock him for doing so, Trump announced on Wednesday that he would boycott the event.

Some cynics suggested that Trump had orchestrated the dispute in order to duck the debate once he had secured a solid lead in Iowa polls.

Either way the spectacle was remarkable, not least because Trump had not only demonstrated he needed neither the sanction of his party nor the platform of the debate, but that he had the power to take on even Fox News, the cable news channel that acts as an arm of the US conservative movement.


His hastily contrived event at Drake University, just outside downtown Iowa, was sold out, and tens of supporters watched in below-freezing temperatures outside as Trump spent an hour on stage inside congratulating himself on the event.

He even managed to draw two other bottom-tier candidates – Mike Huckabee and Rick Santorum – to join him on the stage before his own campaign material.

On stage Trump lamented that he was not at the Fox debate, but said he had to stick up for himself. Dedicating the event to war veterans, he claimed to have raised more than $US6 million ($8.5 million) for their cause.

"Isn't that better than this debate that's going on where they're all sleeping?" he said at one point. "They're all sleeping. They're all sleeping. Everybody."

He also explained that throughout his life he had been "greedy, greedy, greedy", but that now he wanted to be "greedy" for America.

In town at the Marriott, Fox News and the Republican National Committee, the debate, freed of the schoolyard bully presence of Trump, at times began to resemble a Democratic event – more substantial, devoid of needless personal attacks. A little dull.

At times it served as a window into the campaign we all expected to see before it was hijacked by Trump.

Senator Ted Cruz, now polling second after Trump, held centre stage and was aggressive, but the most interesting exchanges were between two of the men who were expected to lead this race, senator Marco Rubio of Florida and his erstwhile mentor, the former governor of Florida, Jeb Bush.

Both accused one another of backflipping over their previous support for immigration reform, an issue that has become anathema in this race thanks to the populism of Trump.

In a clear – perhaps even transparent – appeal to Iowa's vast evangelical vote, Rubio responded when asked about a magazine cover that once proclaimed him to be the saviour of the Republican Party: "Well, let me be clear about one thing. There's only one saviour and it's not me. It's Jesus Christ who came down to Earth and died for our sins and so I've always made that clear about that cover story."

Bush arguably performed better than he has in any other clash, taking time to mildly chastise his colleagues for their failure to earlier tackle Trump.

"Everybody else was in the witness protection program when I went after him on behalf of what the conservative cause should be: conservative principles, believing in limited government, believing in accountability, leading by fixing things that are broken," he said.

Nonetheless Trump's presence was powerful even in his absence. According to a CNN count his name was invoked by his opponents 13 times, and he utterly dominated social media throughout the two events.

And in a masterful touch, he gave an interview to CNN from his private jet – a setting that evoked Air Force One – before the two events aired.

Before the Republican Party circus went to air, Hillary Clinton addressed a small crowd in a school gym in a town called Newton, an hour or so from Des Moines.

She addressed her supporters underneath a scoreboard which showed that a recent game had tied at 45 points each. Clinton, who was expected to dominate in Iowa, is now running neck-and-neck with the socialist upstart Bernie Sanders.

She sought at once to appeal to potential Sanders supporters while differentiating herself. Where Sanders wants to break up the big banks, she wants to do so only if they become "a threat". Where Sanders wants to replace Obamacare with a single-payer health system similar to Australia's, she wants to improve the president's signature policy.

And in stark contrast to Republicans, she referred to her rivals only as "my friends" or "my esteemed colleagues".

Polling suggests she might just pip Sanders at the post. They suggest that Trump is more likely to win the Republican contest.

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