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Trump sidesteps pre-Iowa debate as Clinton calls for one more before N.H.

January 27, 2016 at 6:35 PM EDT
Donald Trump continues to grab headlines even when he exits the stage. The Republican front-runner said he will shun the next debate because he feels one of the FOX News moderators is biased against him. Political director Lisa Desjardins offers a closer look and Gwen Ifill gets a campaign update from Paul Steinhauser of the NH1 News Network and O. Kay Henderson of Radio Iowa.

GWEN IFILL: Now to the race for the White House, with only five days left until Iowa voters head out to caucus, with New Hampshire’s first-in-the-nation primary not far behind. One candidate continues to grab headlines even when he exits the stage.

Political director Lisa Desjardins reports.

DONALD TRUMP (R), Republican Presidential Candidate: I probably won’t bother doing the debate.

LISA DESJARDINS: And with that, the campaign spotlight made it’s near daily turn to Donald Trump.

DONALD TRUMP: Let’s see how much money FOX is going to make on the debate without me. OK?

LISA DESJARDINS: The previously center stage debate star said last night he will shun the next one set for Thursday night.

His reason? FOX News wouldn’t remove moderator Megyn Kelly. Trump has said she’s biased, going back to the last debate on FOX.

MEGYN KELLY, FOX News: That you are part of the war on women?

LISA DESJARDINS: Trump’s latest shots at FOX News quickly ricocheted, becoming ammunition for his rivals, like Ted Cruz.

SEN. TED CRUZ (R), Republican Presidential Candidate: I would like to invite Donald right now to engage in a one-on-one debate with me any time between now and the Iowa caucuses.

LISA DESJARDINS: Major candidates have missed primary debates before, including former Presidents Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush. Of course, both of them ended up winning the GOP nomination anyway. So, is there really any risk for Trump? Maybe.

A study out of the University of Missouri looked at all the debates this century, and found that primary debates do have a big impact, that they are particularly useful to undecided voters, and that there’s a lot of candidate-switching by voters after primary debates. But, of course, Trump has defied conventional traditional wisdom before.

DONALD TRUMP: We will make our country great again.

LISA DESJARDINS: And, this time, he’s drawing from his own script. Back in September, the Republican front-runner defused questions about using a battleship as a prop by turning this rally into a fund-raiser for wounded warriors. He says whatever he does during tomorrow’s debate will also benefit that group.

For the “PBS NewsHour,” I’m Lisa Desjardins.

GWEN IFILL: And for more on what’s happening on that debate stage tomorrow night and how voters are preparing for the actual voting, we are joined by local reporters watching developments up close up in New Hampshire and Iowa.

Paul Steinhauser is political director of NH1 News Network, and joins us from Manchester, New Hampshire. And O. Kay Henderson is news director at Radio Iowa. She’s in Des Moines.

Kay, I better start with you, because we’re five days out, so you actually get the first word here. How are things roiling here on these last few days?

O. KAY HENDERSON, Radio Iowa: That’s a great word.

Fingernails are being bitten down to the core. People are worried. It is a two-person race, it looks like, on the Republican side between Trump and Cruz. And on the Democratic side, it’s a debate about whether enthusiasm or organization will win on caucus night, the organization of Hillary Clinton hoping that they can surmount the surging Bernie Sanders here.

GWEN IFILL: Does this threaten — and what appears to be real — debate walkout that Donald Trump is talking about for tomorrow night, is that having any effect, or is that much — just conversation for all of us?

O. KAY HENDERSON: Well, what it has done is, it has made Donald Trump dominate the discussion again.

That’s what everybody is talking about. What is he going to do? He announced late today he is going to hold an event at Drake University on the same stage where Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders and Martin O’Malley appeared earlier there week. It will occur at exactly the same time that the FOX News debate will happen.

And, of course, you heard just moments ago that Ted Cruz is talking about Donald Trump and challenging him to a debate. So, it is really hard for those candidates who are hoping that maybe they can have an opening here on the Republican side to break through, when you have two of the candidates at the front of the pack firing at one another.

GWEN IFILL: Let’s kick over to New Hampshire, Paul Steinhauser, where there is also a debate going on over debates.

PAUL STEINHAUSER, NH1 News Network: There certainly is.

We didn’t have a debate next week, the week before the primary. We had — on the Democratic side, we have had that for, gosh, 20 or 30 years. So NBC News now proposing a debate, and Hillary Clinton kind of about-face here, right? She wasn’t in favor of more debates for quite some time.

Now she’s down double digits here in New Hampshire, so the idea of an extra debate, even if it’s unsanctioned, sounds good to her. Democratic National Committee so far not going to sanction that debate. Bernie Sanders, as of now, saying, no, I’m not going to do it unless it’s sanctioned. Sanders, of course, the front-runner up here, so maybe he doesn’t want debates anymore.

He wanted more debates just a few weeks ago. But, boy, the role reversal we have seen here in New Hampshire pretty dramatic on the Democratic side just in the last couple months.

And, Kay, I got to say, hey, I’m lonely here. All the candidates are out your way. This is the first day since Christmas week that I haven’t had a candidate here in New Hampshire. You took all the action.

O. KAY HENDERSON: You’re welcome.

GWEN IFILL: Paul, believe me, they are headed your way.

And there have been other things happening in New Hampshire. It’s interesting to watch the newspaper endorsements all of a sudden piling up for John Kasich.

PAUL STEINHAUSER: John Kasich hasn’t been doing it pretty quietly, right? He hasn’t been getting a lot of attention in the media.

But, yes, successful town halls, a lot of town halls, and he’s getting a lot of newspaper endorsements lately. John Kasich now number two in the polls here, and with just a week-and-a-half to go, he is right now the guy winning the battle for second place. It’s pretty clear Donald Trump is the front-runner here by double digits. Right now, it’s a battle for second, third and fourth, trying to get those tickets out of New Hampshire — Gwen.

GWEN IFILL: If it makes you feel any better, Paul, I read today that Hillary Clinton is planning to be in New Hampshire next Tuesday. The morning after the Monday night caucuses, believe me, you will have more than you can handle.

So, Kay, let’s talk about closing messages. What are these candidates saying as they go around? Who are they trying line up and what difference is it making?

O. KAY HENDERSON: Trump’s message is consistent. Cruz is out there trying to make sure that the people that he has lined up to support him over the past couple of years, notably the evangelical community, are with him.

On the Democratic side, Bernie Sanders is really pressing the issue in terms of striking a contrast with Secretary Clinton on some key issues. He visited a union hall yesterday and talked about the TPP. He is accusing her of being sort of late to the dance on a number of key issues that are important to progressive Democrats.

Secretary Clinton today was in a bowling alley in Adel, Iowa. And her closing message has really pivoted. Last week, she was really throwing some elbows at Senator Sanders. Today, she was talking about how she, Senator Sanders and Governor O’Malley agree on a number of issues.

She really didn’t mention their names very much. She was more focused on a general election message and a closing message, telling people that being in Iowa had really changed her and informed her on a number of issues.

GWEN IFILL: Kay, give us the understanding geographically where these candidates are focusing. You talked about it being a three-person Republican race in Iowa.

Where is Ted Cruz going, where is Donald Trump going, where is Ben Carson going, and after whom?

O. KAY HENDERSON: Ben Carson has held steady. He has been going to evangelical churches.

He reminds me a lot of Alan Keyes, who did quite well in the 2000 caucuses here by a core of supporters who never really left his side. Donald Trump is going all over the state, as is Secretary Clinton, although Democrats tend to be focusing on the eastern half of the state, whereas you have Republicans who are sort of rushing into that northwest quadrant of the state, hoping to nail down the more conservative Republicans.

The way the votes are counted here is much different. Democrats really have to run a statewide campaign, whereas Republicans can truly run up the score in some of the more conservative areas of the state and strike a win on caucus night.

GWEN IFILL: Paul Steinhauser, that is an important point how different Iowa is from New Hampshire.

If you haven’t made up your mind in Iowa now, you probably don’t plan on showing up to caucus. But, in New Hampshire, it’s not the same thing.

So, what are the closing messages there?

PAUL STEINHAUSER: Yes, you’re right.

New Hampshire voters traditionally make up their minds late. A lot of voters probably still haven’t made up their minds. New Hampshire voters like to go out and see the candidates two, three, four times, ask them the questions, and then they will decide.

So, for the candidates right now on the Republican side for that big battle for second, third and fourth, it is a more of an — it’s a very different feel than in Iowa. You’re seeing a lot more outpouring towards independent voters.

They are about 40 percent of the electorate here. They vote in either primary. You’re seeing a lot of pitches right now to the independent voters by some of these Republican candidates and on the Democratic side as well. The independents, where do they go? Do they vote on the Republican primary or do they vote in the Democratic primary? That is the key question right here in New Hampshire right now, Gwen.

GWEN IFILL: But, Paul, for all that discussion about where independents are going to go, undecideds are going to go, Donald Trump has been remarkably steady with his third of the Republican vote, hasn’t he?

PAUL STEINHAUSER: He has. He has been in the upper 20s or low 30s. You pick your poll.

We have seen that basically since late July, early August, hasn’t changed here in New Hampshire. Donald Trump is coming back Friday. The hours after that debate, he will be right here in New Hampshire.

And you mentioned John Kasich earlier. It’s interesting. John Kasich is coming back to New Hampshire on Saturday. He’s going to campaign straight through here. John Kasich will be the only candidate in New Hampshire on caucus day. Everybody else will be in Iowa. For Kasich, it’s all about the Granite State, Gwen.

GWEN IFILL: Does Bernie Sanders change in New Hampshire? Does he change his approach at all, or is he so far ahead now that it’s just a question of cruising to the end?

PAUL STEINHAUSER: No, they’re not taking anything for granted, and so he may change his mind on this debate.

We may have a presidential debate here in New Hampshire on the Democratic side next week. Stay tuned for that. His lead, you pick the poll, it could be anywhere from about nine to 12 points. Bernie Sanders is not taking a darn thing for granted here. Hillary Clinton doesn’t want to get blown out by double digits here.

So, this race is going to continue on. It’s not over on the Democratic side.

GWEN IFILL: Kay, there is so much discussion and anticipation for this weekend’s final Des Moines Register poll that everyone is waiting to see where it leads.

Tell us a little bit about why this is considered to be an important poll and how it’s played out in past years.

O. KAY HENDERSON: This is the poll that showed the Santorum surge in 2012. This is the poll that showed Barack Obama was likely to win in 2008.

It is considered, it’s been said often, that this is the gold standard. People have been getting lots of calls from pollsters. And the woman who runs this poll, Ann Selzer, says when we call and when we identify ourselves as the Iowa poll, we hope that encourages Iowans to be a little bit more willing to chat with us.

And this poll, I can’t stress enough, I have heard stories about people actually going to the printing plant to try to see if they can get the first copies off the press to see what it says.

GWEN IFILL: You don’t think the interwebs have changed that a little bit now?


O. KAY HENDERSON: They have a little bit.

But, actually, the chair of the Iowa Democratic Party tells a compelling story about how she went to the printing press one night to try to get the first papers off the press.

GWEN IFILL: OK. Well, we will be watching that both in New Hampshire and in Iowa.

Thank you both for joining us. Next time when we talk, at least we will have some, actually, votes in the can to discuss.

Thank you both very much, Paul Steinhauser at NH1 in New Hampshire and O. Kay Henderson at Iowa Radio Network in Iowa. Thank you.

O. KAY HENDERSON: Thank you.