Donald Trump (R) speaks as Rick Santorm (C) as Mike Huckabee (L) look on during a Trump campaign rally raising funds for US military veterans at Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa on January 28, 2016.
Inside Trump's one of a kind debate counter-programming
03:18 - Source: CNN

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Donald Trump started his rally by announcing he has raised nearly $6 million for veterans in one day

Trump is appearing in Des Moines at the same time of the Fox News Republican debate

Des Moines, Iowa CNN  — 

No one ever really doubted that Donald Trump could pull off a major counter-programing feat – even when competing with a GOP debate that was expected to draw millions of viewers.

He did it Thursday night, dazzling a crowd of hundreds of enthusiastic supporters by announcing that he had raised more than $6 million for veterans in one day – $1 million of it from his own checkbook. “We love our vets,” he said.

“You know, my whole theme is make America great again and that’s what we’re going to do — and we wouldn’t have even been here if it weren’t for our vets,” Trump said.

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Even Trump seemed a bit surprised that he had pulled off his stunt: “Look at all the cameras. This is like the Academy Awards,” the real estate magnate said as he took the stage in an auditorium at Drake University about 20 minutes after the debate began a few miles away. “We’re actually told that we have more cameras than they do by quite a bit, and you know what that’s really in honor of our vets.”

The rally was a restrained performance by Trump standards. He dispensed with his usual riff about his poll numbers and mostly avoided jabs at his fellow candidates (with the exception of a “low-energy” shot at Jeb Bush).

Instead he delivered a speech mostly focused on the problems veterans have faced when returning from Iraq and Afghanistan – inadequate healthcare and housing, drug abuse, mental health issues and homelessness.

“Our vets are being mistreated. Illegal immigrants are treated better in many cases than our vets and it’s not going to happen any more. It’s not going to happen any more.”

Clearly enjoying his evening away from the debate, Trump also told the audience what could be another media sensation for his campaign: the fact that his daughter Ivanka is pregnant. “Ivanka, I said, it would be so great if you had your baby in Iowa. It would be so great – I’d definitely win!”

Huckabee and Santorum join the party

In a somewhat extraordinary move for someone who has reveled in taunting his rivals, he invited Mike Huckabee and Rick Santorum – two candidates who had been relegated to an earlier undercard debate – to join him on stage to speak about veterans issues. While appearing generous, it was also politically savvy maneuver given that the two men were the respective winners of the past two Iowa caucuses, but stuck in the bottom-tier this time around.

Huckabee and Santorum are still well-liked and admired by core Republican voters here in Iowa, even if their campaigns have failed to ignite this time. And their presence on stage with Trump could go a long way toward negating the criticisms from Trump’s rivals like Ted Cruz, whose allies have claimed that Trump will be punished by Iowans on Monday for skipping the debate stage.

Santorum, who narrowly defeated Mitt Romney here in 2012, tried to stand to the side of Trump’s podium, noting to laughter that he didn’t want to be photographed in front of a Trump sign.

“I’m supporting another candidate, but that doesn’t mean we can’t work together” to honor America’s veterans, Santorum said.

Trump declares victory against Fox News

Trump has regaled in the media spectacle that he created over the past few days after withdrawing from the Fox News debate with complaints that he’d been mistreated by the network. He told the crowd that he wished that he’d been able to participate, but once he had withdrawn – no amount of cajoling, even by the likes of Fox News host Bill O’Reilly — could bring him back.

“When you’re treated badly, you have to stick up for your rights,” he said to cheers. “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.

“Once this started and it was for our vets there was nothing I could do,” he added, reflecting on whether the pundits were right that his maneuver might damage his campaign. “I don’t know. Is it for me personally a good thing, a bad thing? Will I get more votes? Will I get less votes? Nobody knows. Who the hell knows.”

$6 million for 22 veterans’ groups

He predicted that the amount of money that he had raised through a website and through personal calls to wealthy friends who contributed to the cause would impress Iowans. “I think this money is going to continue to pour in.”

The Trump campaign on Thursday night released a list of 22 veterans’ organizations that will share the more than $6 million fundraising haul.

The organizations run the gamut from groups focused on helping veterans with disabilities and mental health problems to those aimed at helping veterans reintegrate into civilian society.

‘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 him to them 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,” he 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.”

CNN’s Noah Gray, Gregory Krieg, Gabe Ramirez and Jeremy Diamond contributed to this report