DES MOINES, Iowa — They had seen a crowd like this before: a few hundred Iowans, up on their feet, hands in the air and cheering wildly. Rick Santorum and Mike Huckabee, two former winners of the Iowa Republican presidential caucuses (in 2012 and 2008, respectively) stood in the warm glow of the stage lights, clearly thrilled at the reception. But their smiles soon turned wistful. The audience wasn’t there for them.
The Republican presidential hopefuls, now political long shots in their second bids for the GOP nomination, stood in the shadow of the man to beat, Donald Trump, who had enlisted his rivals in his counter-programming for the GOP debate Thursday night — a fundraiser for military veterans that was alternately sincere and surreal.
Taking the stage at an auditorium on the campus of Drake University, a few miles from where his Republican rivals were participating in the last debate before Monday’s caucuses, Trump told the crowd that Fox News had been “extremely nice” to him that afternoon, calling him and asking up until the last minute if he’d change his mind and come to the debate. But he refused, because, he said, they hadn’t been fair to him.
“You have to stick up for your rights,” Trump said, comparing his feud with Fox News to the tempestuous relationship between the United States and Iran.
Donald Trump invites former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee and former Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania to the podium at his campaign event Thursday night in Des Moines, Iowa. (Photo: Khue Bui for Yahoo News)
In the front row sat Huckabee and Santorum, fresh from their appearance in the so-called “undercard” debate, awkward smiles on their faces as Trump rambled through a version of his stump speech. At one point, he suddenly seemed to remember that he’d invited two of his rivals to join him to honor military veterans, and he summoned Huckabee and Santorum to the stage, reminding his audience that they had just come from a debate.
“I heard they did really well, these two. I mean, who the hell knows? I didn’t get to see very much of it,” Trump said. Turning to his rivals, who wore frozen smiles, he said, “I think if they had booed, you probably wouldn’t be here right now. You’d go back and be depressed, right?”
Trump pushed his rivals to speak, and Santorum walked to the microphone first, standing awkwardly to the left of the podium. “Not to be offensive,” the former Pennsylvania senator said, “but I am going to stand a little bit over here so I am not photographed with the Trump sign.”
As the audience laughed, Santorum added, “Um, I am supporting another candidate for president, but that doesn’t mean we can’t work together when it comes to helping our veterans.”
When Huckabee spoke, he didn’t bother to hide from the Trump sign. “I figure you’re going to get the photo anyway, so I might as well just stand here,” he said. “I want to say how grateful I am for Donald Trump inviting us here. I think you would have let any of the other candidates come. But for reasons that maybe I don’t understand, they are not here. Maybe because they have a slot at 8 o’clock, but I had nothing to do at 8 o’clock tonight. This worked great for me.”
A supporter with an anti-Fox News sticker listens to Donald Trump at a campaign event Thursday night in Des Moines, Iowa. (Photo: Khue Bui for Yahoo News)
Behind him, Trump laughed.
In the crowd, nobody seemed to be sad about missing the last GOP debate here.
“It didn’t bother me a bit. I’ve watched the debates. After a couple of them, there’s not a whole lot more they can ask,“ said Suellen Seaba, who came to the Trump event with her husband, a Vietnam veteran, and their friend Wesley Jacoby, a 90-year-old who served in World War II, Korea and Vietnam. "I thought this was a very good alternative.”
Liz Goodwin contributed to this report.