Trump draws full house at own event as he snubs Fox News debate

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DES MOINES, Iowa, Jan 28 (Reuters) - Donald Trump shunned Thursday night's debate of the Republican presidential candidates hosted by Fox News and instead filled an auditorium a few miles down the road, trying to prove his widespread support only days before Iowa kicks off the U.S. nominating voting process.

Trump, with just one day's notice on a weeknight, was able to fill to capacity a hall at Drake University that holds 700.

"I didn't want to be here, to be honest, I wanted to be about five minutes away" at the debate, Trump told the crowd. "When you're treated badly, you have to stick up for your rights - whether we like it or not."

Click through images from the Trump event:

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Donald Trump's Iowa Rally at the same time as GOP debate
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Trump draws full house at own event as he snubs Fox News debate
Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks at a event at Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa, Thursday, Jan. 28, 2016. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)
Republican presidential candidates Rick Santorum, left, and Donald Trump, center, laugh as they listens to Mike Huckabee during a campaign event on the campus of Drake University Thursday, Jan. 28, 2016, in Des Moines, Iowa. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)
Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump arrives at a campaign event on the campus of Drake University Thursday, Jan. 28, 2016, in Des Moines, Iowa. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)
Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks at a event at Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa, Thursday, Jan. 28, 2016. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)
Republican presidential candidates Donald Trump, center, and Mike Huckabee, left, applaud while listening to Rick Santorum during a campaign event on the campus of Drake University Thursday, Jan. 28, 2016, in Des Moines, Iowa. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)
Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump applauds as Treasure Island Casino owner Phil Ruffin speaks, along with his wife, Oleksandra Nikolayenko, at a event in support of veterans at Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa, Thursday, Jan. 28, 2016. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)
Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump waves at a event at Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa, Thursday, Jan. 28, 2016. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)
Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump laughs as Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum jokes about not being photographed in front of a Trump podium sign at a event in support of veterans at Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa, Thursday, Jan. 28, 2016. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)
Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump appears on stage with fellow candidates Mike Huckabee, left, and Rick Santorum at a Trump event in support of veterans at Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa, Thursday, Jan. 28, 2016. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)
Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks at a event at Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa, Thursday, Jan. 28, 2016. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)
Donald Trump speaks during a campaign rally raising funds for US military veterans at Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa on January 28, 2016. US Republicans scrambling to win the first contest in the presidential nomination race were gearing for battle at high-profile debate in Iowa, but frontrunner Donald Trump is upending the campaign by defiantly refusing to attend. Trump's gamble has left the presidential race in uncharted waters just days before Iowans vote on February 1, insisting he will not back down in his feud with debate host Fox News.Instead, the billionaire has doubled down, hosting a rogue, rival event for US military veterans at the same time that his own party is showcasing its candidates for president to all-important Iowa voters. / AFP / William EDWARDS (Photo credit should read WILLIAM EDWARDS/AFP/Getty Images)
Donald Trump, president and chief executive of Trump Organization Inc. and 2016 Republican presidential candidate, waves during a campaign event in Des Moines, Iowa, U.S., on Thursday, Jan. 28, 2016. Trump, according to a flurry of early-state and national polls, is the overwhelming favorite of self-identified moderate and liberal Republican voters. Among more conservative voters, he often trails his chief rival for the nomination, U.S. Senator Ted Cruz. Photographer: T.J. Kirkpatrick/Bloomberg via Getty Images
Donald Trump, president and chief executive of Trump Organization Inc. and 2016 Republican presidential candidate, speaks during a campaign event in Des Moines, Iowa, U.S., on Thursday, Jan. 28, 2016. Trump, according to a flurry of early-state and national polls, is the overwhelming favorite of self-identified moderate and liberal Republican voters. Among more conservative voters, he often trails his chief rival for the nomination, U.S. Senator Ted Cruz. Photographer: T.J. Kirkpatrick/Bloomberg via Getty Images
Protesters, left, are confronted by supporters during a campaign event for Donald Trump, president and chief executive of Trump Organization Inc. and 2016 Republican presidential candidate, in Des Moines, Iowa, U.S., on Thursday, Jan. 28, 2016. Trump, according to a flurry of early-state and national polls, is the overwhelming favorite of self-identified moderate and liberal Republican voters. Among more conservative voters, he often trails his chief rival for the nomination, U.S. Senator Ted Cruz. Photographer: T.J. Kirkpatrick/Bloomberg via Getty Images
Melania Trump, wife of Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump, waves, at event in support of veterans at Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa, Thursday, Jan. 28, 2016. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)
Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks at a event at Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa, Thursday, Jan. 28, 2016. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)
Republican presidential candidate Mike Huckabee waves to attendees before the start of a veterans event with Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump at Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa, Thursday, Jan. 28, 2016. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)
People cheer before the arrival of Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump for at a rally at Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa, Thursday, Jan. 28, 2016. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)
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The back-and-forth between Trump and Fox News continued even after the debate had begun.

Trump said he skipped the debate because he would not be treated fairly by Fox News anchor and debate moderator Megyn Kelly.

He told the crowd that Fox News made repeated calls to try to persuade him to change his mind. He said officials, presumably the network's chairman, Roger Ailes, called him until moments before the debate began.

Fox News told the story differently.

The network acknowledged that Ailes had three conversations with Trump but said in a statement that Trump had offered to participate in the debate only if Fox News donated $5 million to his charity.

Fox News declined to make the payment, calling it a "quid pro quo" in its statement.

Trump has made such a demand previously, telling CNN when it hosted a Republican debate that it should donate $5 million to charity from the profits gained from advertising. CNN turned down that demand.

Trump was able to garner a tremendous amount of attention on Thursday without having to share much of the spotlight. Cable news networks CNN and MSNBC provided extensive coverage of his event.

In deciding to hold a competing event, Trump said the gathering would be to benefit veterans and he welcomed his rivals to attend. Former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee and former U.S. Senator Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania joined Trump after participating in the undercard debate held for the Republican candidates at the bottom of the polls. Both men spoke briefly about the need to help the nation's veterans.

Trump told the crowd that in one day he raised more than $5 million for a veterans group, although his campaign did not say which group was getting the funds. At the conclusion of the event, Trump announced that the total raised for veterans had risen to $6 million.

Trump said he personally donated $1 million.

THE COMMITTED AND THE CURIOUS

Trump's decision to skip the debate was sharply criticized by his opponents.

U.S. Senator Ted Cruz opened the debate by mocking Trump in his absence. "I'm a maniac and everyone on this stage is stupid, fat and ugly," Cruz said, imitating Trump. "And Ben, you're a terrible surgeon. Now that we've gotten the Donald Trump portion out of the way."

There are risks in holding his own event for Trump, who several recent polls have shown barely leading Cruz.

If Trump wins the Iowa caucuses, the move will be lauded as proof that he has built a movement capable of circumventing establishment media. If he places second, the skipped debate will be blamed as a fatal tactical error that allowed opponents to paint him as weak in the fact of tough questions.

Trump acknowledged that he did not know whether the event would ultimately hurt or help his campaign.

"Who the hell knows, but it's for our vets," he said.

Supporters and some curious onlookers waited in the sub-freezing cold in a line that wrapped around the building and down a block.

Trump's campaign erected a large Jumbotron outside the auditorium to allow an overflow crowd to watch his remarks.

Before Trump took the stage, some of his well-known supporters spoke. Lynnette "Diamond" Hardaway and Rochelle "Silk" Richardson, two women with a large online video blog following, urged the crowd to back Trump.

Randy Bowling, a Trump supporter from Ottumwa, Iowa, said some of his friends who are undecided in the Republican contest said Trump's decision to not participate in the debate raised doubts about supporting him.

"We have mixed emotions," Bowling said. "We caught a lot of flak from our friends who are on the fence."

Sharon and Richard Lode drove three hours from Sioux Rapids, Iowa to see Trump's event, deciding they would make the drive with only one-day's notice.

Sharon Lode, who is 65, was not worried that skipping the debate could hurt Trump on caucus day.

"It took a lot of guts to stand up to them," she said.

Steven Doran, 19, was one of the many students and other curious area residents who attended the event with no plans to ultimately support Trump. Doran plans to participate in the Democratic caucus.

"The spectacle," Doran said, when asked why he was there. "I've never seen Trump in person."

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