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DES MOINES, Iowa — If Donald Trump had any second thoughts about skipping the GOP debate, he certainly didn’t show it as he took the stage before a raucous crowd at Drake University on Thursday night to say that he had raised nearly $6 million for veterans in one day.
For several days now, the pundits have pontificated about the damage that Trump’s decision could inflict on his campaign. But, comparing his crowd and the number of cameras to the Academy Awards, Trump waved off the notion that Iowans would see him as a sore loser.
“We love our vets,” Trump said.
“When you’re treated badly you have to stick up for your rights,” Trump added, alluding to his relationship with Fox. “And that’s what our country has to do.”
“We have to stick up for our country when we’re being mistreated.”
He added that Fox had been “extremely nice,” but it was too late. In an interview with CNN just before the rally, Trump said Fox News “apologized” to him for a mocking statement the television network issued.
Also appearing with Trump were two men who didn’t make the prime-time debate, and the two most recent winners of the Iowa Caucuses: Rick Santorum and Mike Huckabee.
‘Donald Trump isn’t scared of anything’
Trump supporters who waited hours in the cold to see him roundly disputed the notion that he would see any attrition in his support in Iowa, where he has led in recent polls.
In interviews, many voters here said the controversy was yet another example of Trump bucking the establishment — a trait that has endeared them to him from the beginning — and that they were proud of him standing up to Fox News.
Ernie Ratcliffe, an army veteran who served two tours in Vietnam, drove in from Kansas City for the rally, scoffed when asked for his thoughts on Texas Sen. Ted Cruz’s contention that Trump skipped the debate because he was afraid of taunts or difficult questions from the Fox moderators or rival candidates.
“Donald Trump isn’t scared of anything. He’s not scared of absolutely anything,” said Ratcliffe, who has signed up with his wife to call New Hampshire voters on Trump’s behalf next week. “Donald J. Trump said he was going to do this and he’s done it. He’s a man of his word.”
Ratcliffe said he was convinced that Trump was the only candidate who could clean up the Department of Veterans Affairs and that it would be “one of the first things he does when he gets into office.”
“He’s going to get it squared away,” Ratlcliffe said. “It’s not going to take him very long to do it. He’s going to put the right people in. He knows how to manage things. He’s a very successful businessman. He’s going to get it done very quickly and very, very well.”
Randal Thom, a former Marine who was among the first admitted to Trump’s event, said he loved it that Trump refused to back down.
“When it came out yesterday that he was actually doing this (rally) in less than 24 hours, it was amazing,” Thom said. “It just shows he has the ability to rally and get things done.”
Thom, who raises Alaskan Malamute and Pomalute puppies in Minnesota, and plans to spend Monday in Iowa volunteering for Trump, dismissed Cruz as “a Canadian born citizen” and described the Texas senator, as well as the other GOP contenders as “weak.”
“Trump is a 100% strongman. He’s bullet proof,” Thom said. “People say, ‘Oh look at his background. Look at the number of wives he’s had.’ You know what? I don’t care about that. What I care about is his future.”
The details of exactly how Trump plans to parcel out money to veterans groups as a result of the event remained unclear on Monday night. But said he gave $1 million to veterans.
Inside the auditorium where Trump spoke, the campaign reserved special seating for veterans, many of them disabled, and Trump recognized them as he took the stage.