It was late Tuesday afternoon, and Donald Trump had just announced he would skip Thursday’s Republican presidential debate in Iowa because of a longstanding dispute with Fox News reporter and debate moderator Megyn Kelly. The news broke at about 6:30 p.m. — at around 7:00 p.m., Cruz was on the radio challenging Trump to a debate of his own.
“If Donald is afraid of Megyn Kelly, I would like to invite him on your show to participate in a one-on-one debate between me and Donald, mano a mano,” Cruz told conservative talk radio host Mark Levin. If Levin was not a suitable moderator for Trump, Cruz said, “I’m happy to go an hour and a half mano a mano, me and Donald with no moderators, anytime before the Iowa caucuses.”
By 7:20 p.m., Cruz was in front of a packed town hall in Fairfield, Iowa, delivering a long and well-prepared tirade of Trump’s decision. He called Trump a “fragile soul,” unable to handle criticism and “scared” of confrontation with the “mean” Megyn Kelly. But the worst part, Cruz charged, was Trump’s arrogance — his confidence that he could still win the coveted Iowa caucuses if he doesn’t participate in Iowa’s presidential debate.
“I think anyone running for president of the United State owes it to the people of Iowa to have the ability to come in front of you to make the case to answer our questions,” Cruz said. “This is a job interview. … Anyone who wins the Iowa caucus [should] demonstrate the humility to come in front of the people of Iowa, look you in the eyes, and be held accountable.”
On his way to the next campaign event, at around 8:30 p.m., the Cruz campaign released a new web page entitled “Ducking Donald,” asking supporters to pressure Trump into a one-on-one debate. By 9:00 p.m., Cruz was in front of a new crowd of Iowans, suggesting that the real reason Trump was skipping the debate was to avoid facing Cruz himself. With just a few days until the caucuses, the two men are locked in a dead heat for first place.
“One or the other of us is going to win the state of Iowa. And I’ll tell you right now, that’s why Donald’s not showing up,” Cruz said. “It has nothing to do with Megyn Kelly … This is all about him not being willing to defend his record. Him being afraid.”
Most likely, Cruz hoped his rapid-fire response to Trump’s debate decision would help sway voters who are on the fence between the two men. Indeed, before the events began, several attendees told ThinkProgress that they liked both Trump and Cruz, but weren’t sure which one they would go out and caucus for.
One of those men was Jim Kennedy, a veteran from Fairfield. Before Cruz’s town hall began, he told ThinkProgress that he wasn’t yet totally decided. “I don’t have any axe to grind with either one of them,” he said.
After Cruz’s tirade against Trump, however, Kennedy changed his mind.
“That Trump wouldn’t go to the debate, that kind of turned me off. I thought that was a cop-out for him,” he said. “But I always liked Cruz, and I liked him tonight.”