US presidential hopeful Donald Trump on Wednesday escalated a fight with Fox News, using the word “bimbo” in a derogatory tweet about anchorwoman Megyn Kelly after pulling out of a debate only days before the first nominating contest of the 2016 campaign.
Trump on Tuesday withdrew from the televised encounter, scheduled for Thursday night in Des Moines, Iowa, in irritation at host Fox News for allowing Kelly to moderate after her questioning had angered him in a debate last year.
The real estate magnate, who is the Republican front-runner to win the nomination for the Nov. 8 presidential election, followed up with a thinly veiled insult on Wednesday.
I refuse to call Megyn Kelly a bimbo, because that would not be politically correct. Instead I will only call her a lightweight reporter!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) January 27, 2016
It was the childishly written & taunting PR statement by Fox that made me not do the debate, more so than lightweight reporter, @megynkelly.— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) January 27, 2016
Trump’s Republican presidential rivals were quick to criticise the former reality TV star, with US Senator Ted Cruz of Texas blistering him in a series of tweets and accusing him of “trembling at being questioned by Kelly.”
Another Republican hopeful, US Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky, told Fox News that he welcomed Trump’s absence from the debate stage because it means “we don’t have to put up with a lot of empty blather and boastfulness and calling people names.”
Trump’s move means the last televised debate before Monday’s Iowa caucuses - which kick off the state-by-state nominating race to choose candidates for the Nov. 8 presidential election - will not feature the man who has dominated the Republican race for months and leads many opinion polls. It was seen as a bold gamble.
‘A RISKY MOVE’
“It’s a risky move, it’s very high-profile,” said Craig Robinson, a former Iowa state party official. “But I’m not sure it will really change anyone’s mind about Trump.”
Trump has been feuding with Fox News since the network put on the first Republican debate in August, in which Kelly asked Trump about his treatment of women, prompting a stream of insults from the candidate and complaints he was not being treated fairly.
Cruz, Trump’s main rival in Iowa, used the hashtag #DuckingDonald to make fun of the former reality TV star for ducking out of the debate and tweeted a mocked-up picture of Trump’s head on Donald Duck’s body sitting on a pile of money.
Cruz, a conservative and a debating champion in college, challenged Trump to a one-on-one debate. He tweeted a link to “duckingdonald.com,” which asked visitors to sign a petition in favour of Cruz and Trump having a side debate.
New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, who is also in the Republican race, described Trump’s decision at such a crucial time as “a big mistake” which calls into question his ability to be president.
“Anytime you get a podium and a microphone and 15-20 million people watching in an election campaign, you should take it,” Christie told Boston Herald Radio.
Another Republican candidate, US Senator Marco Rubio of Florida, said he wanted to focus on keeping the party united in order to beat Hillary Clinton, the former secretary of state, in November if she becomes the Democratic nominee.
“These kinds of theatrics by Ted Cruz and Donald Trump are an entertaining sideshow, but they have nothing to do with defeating Hillary Clinton,” Rubio said.
Not every candidate was convinced Trump would follow through on his pledge to stay away.
“He apparently is not going to come to the debate, although I’ve got a $20 bet he’ll show up,” former Florida Governor Jeb Bush said at a town hall meeting when asked about Trump by a voter.
“Poor little Donald, being treated unfairly,” he said.
Trump’s campaign manager, Corey Lewandowski, said that Trump was not afraid to debate his rivals or take reporters’ questions. He added that Trump would be happy to debate Cruz if the contest, which includes 12 Republicans vying for the nomination, narrows.
“If it comes down to a two-person race, Donald Trump would be happy to debate him,” Lewandowski told ABC’s “Good Morning America” programme.
Fox News, in a statement on Tuesday, said it would not “give in to terrorizations towards any of our employees,” but left the door open to Trump attending the debate. The event will be co-hosted by Google.
Trump has said he will instead hold an event for veterans.
“At the end of the day, Trump is going to have the last laugh,” Lewandowski told MSNBC.