WASHINGTON - With just days to go before the first US presidential nominations contest in Iowa, Donald Trump is raising the stakes in the Republican campaign, defiantly refusing to debate his rivals Thursday and instead hosting an event for veterans.

The US Republican Party’s front-runner, who is skipping the Fox News-sponsored presidential debate over a feud with the network, sent out special invitations Wednesday afternoon to a Donald J Trump Special Event to Benefit Veterans Organizations.

The event will be held at 9pm EST (7am PST Friday) at Drake University in Des Moines at the same time his rivals will take the main debate stage just three miles away. The Trump campaign has said he would sit out the debate due to concerns about “bias” from Fox News anchor and debate moderator Megyn Kelly. But Trump blamed a statement the network issued for his choice not to participate, insisting it wasn’t the Kelly feud.

At a pre-rally press conference Tuesday, Trump told reporters he planned to organize a charity event for the Wounded Warrior Project to help injured war veterans, but it remained unclear if the organization was involved in the special event unveiled Wednesday. Trump campaign manager Corey Lewandowski said on a radio programme that the event would be used to raise funds for multiple veterans organizations. Lewandowski didn’t offer details about when planning for the event started. Today (Thursday) rump hinted early that two other candidates might join him at an event he’s scheduled as an alternative to Fox News’s GOP presidential debate.

“Wow, two candidates called last night and said they want to go to my event tonight at Drake University,” he tweeted without naming the candidates. The Republican presidential front-runner also predicted his absence would hurt Fox News’s ratings for the next contest.

“Fox debate advertising rates falling like a rock!” he wrote late Wednesday. “Tune into my special event for the veterans at 9pm EST!” “On Greta, 87 percent of the people watching said they would not watch the debate if I’m not in it,” Trump added, referencing Fox anchor Greta Van Susteren’s “On the Record.” “Wow, what an honour!”

Trump’s campaign has described it as a fundraiser for multiple military veterans’ organizations, naming the Wounded Warriors Project as one possibility. The outspoken billionaire’s decision has sparked widespread derision from other Republican White House hopefuls. An organization supporting Ted Cruz, Trump’s closest rival for the GOP nomination, pledged $1.5 million to charity if Trump accepts a one-on-one debate with the Texas senator.

Speaking on FOX News “The O’Reilly Factor,” Trump continued his long-running feud with Kelly, who he has been criticizing ever since she challenged him on his derision of women at the first Republican debate, in August. “I have zero respect for Megyn Kelly,” Trump said. “I don’t think she’s good at what she does and I think she’s highly overrated. And, frankly, she’s a moderator; I thought her question last time was ridiculous.” Kelly is also set to moderate Thursday night’s debate on Fox News. Trump is instead holding his own event in Des Moines at the same time as the debate that he says will raise money for wounded veterans. In the contentious interview with Bill O’Reilly, Trump rebuffed the anchor’s attempts to convince him that he’s making a grave error by skipping the debate. “I believe personally that you want to improve the country,” O’Reilly said. “By doing this, you miss the opportunity to convince others that is true.”

But O’Reilly’s pitch fell flat with Trump. The Republican front-runner dug in his heels, insisting he intended to retaliate against the network by depriving them of ratings. “Fox was going to make a fortune off this debate,” Trump said. “Now they’re going to make much less.” O’Reilly said he was merely trying to convince Trump that his approach “is wrong because it’s better for people to see you in the debate format.” 

He gave the example from 2012, when a CNN debate moderator in South Carolina asked former Speaker Newt Gingrich an embarrassing question about allegations he had an open marriage. Gingrich shut the moderator down and went on to win the South Carolina primary, O’Reilly noted. “That’s the kind of guy you are,” O’Reilly said. “You stick it to them and let them have it.” Responded Trump: “Newt is a friend of mine, and I thought it was an unfair question. But equally unfair was the question Megyn Kelly asked me.” 

O’Reilly then sought to appeal to Trump’s capacity to forgive, reminding the billionaire businessman that he’s a Christian, even if he doesn’t attend church all that often, and that the Bible says to “turn the other cheek.” Trump shot back, saying he’s a regular churchgoer and that the Bible also says “an eye for an eye.” “You could look at it that way, too,” Trump said. O’Reilly accused Trump of being “petty” and said he was allowing things that are out of his control to have outsize influence over his decision-making. “I don’t like being taken advantage of,” Trump said. “In this case I was being taken advantage of by Fox. I don’t like that.

Now when I’m representing the country, if I win, I’m not going to let our country be taken advantage of it’s a personality trait, but I don’t think it’s a bad personality trait.” O’Reilly ended the interview asking Trump to reconsider showing up Thursday night. Trump said the two had agreed beforehand that O’Reilly not ask that question. “I told you up front don’t ask me that question because it’s an embarrassing question for you and I don’t want to embarrass you,” he said.