DES MOINES, IOWA—“Isn’t this better than that debate that’s going on?”
Donald Trump, asking the question he knew the answer to, had just placed a “promise ring” from a combat veteran on his trigger finger. It was a poignant reminder of all the veterans who commit suicide every day, and the trauma soldiers continue to endure away from the battlefield.
It was also a reminder that when it comes to stealing a show, no one does it better than The Donald.
Mr. Trump of course skipped the televised debate on Fox, where his Republican competitors were left to fulminate in his absence. Instead, he went within walking distance to Drake University tonight, holding a fundraiser for veterans that doubled as a campaign rally and further homage to himself. It was quintessential Donald, and it worked; Roger Ailes, the powerful Fox News executive who met his match in the celebrity billionaire, reportedly asked Mr. Trump to come back to the debate, he said “no,” and got to have his cake and eat it too.
Hundreds lined up in the Iowa cold to see him. Many were supposedly turned away, because the Trump campaign once again had issued too many tickets. Those that got in, clad in their red Trump beanies, white Trump t-shirts and “Make America Great Again” hoodies, were treated to the show.
“Fox has been extremely nice in the last number of hours,” Mr. Trump, standing on stage in the packed auditorium, said with a smirk. “We actually thought what we’d do is let them start and you know we wanted be about 15 minutes into that hour.”
Indeed, as Mr. Trump took the stage, following introductions from a winner of his Apprentice television show and the Trump-supporting YouTube stars Diamond and Silk, his GOP rivals were in the Iowa Events Center, navigating a world without their foil—and maybe lodestar.
In typical fashion, he boasted he was getting more attention than Fox. “We’re actually told we have more cameras than them by quite a bit,” he said, claiming the evening had raised $6 million for veterans, including a $1 million contribution from himself. At one point, he likened the night to the Academy Awards.
Mocking commentators who wondered what it would mean for his chances in the Iowa caucuses, set to be held on Monday, to skip a debate, he said he didn’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?”
What we know is that nothing—not his belittling of Sen. John McCain’s war record, his feud with Fox’s Megyn Kelly, his hatred of Muslims and illegal immigrants—has damaged his standing in state and national polls. As a show of his strength, and perhaps their own desperate straits, Rick Santorum and Mike Huckabee joined him on stage after their appearance on the debate’s undercard. It was apropos, in a way: the two men, nominally rivals to Mr. Trump in the GOP primary, won Iowa in 2012 and 2008 respectively.
Each were now grateful to bask in the glow of Mr. Trump, the ultimate spectacle, with only Mr. Santorum, the former Pennsylvania senator, making a show of being a competitor by edging to the side of the podium so photographs wouldn’t catch him behind a Trump sign.
Mr. Huckabee, the former Arkansas governor, didn’t even care.
For portions of the night, Mr. Trump ceded the stage to others. John Wayne Walding, a Green Beret who lost his leg in Iraq, extolled the billionaire’s compassion for veterans while talking about his own struggles after war. Twice during Mr. Trump’s remarks, and once just after Mr. Walding had left the stage, protesters shouted “Trump wants war.” They were quickly led out of the auditorium.
“I love the protesters in the big arenas because the cameras never move. They’re always on my face,” Mr. Trump said. “All the other politicians no one cares, no one’s covering them.”
Mr. Trump’s unprecedented swagger will be tested on Monday. Republican operatives who’ve worked on Iowa campaigns say the low turnout caucuses are the ultimate proving ground of a disciplined, no-nonsense get-out-the-vote operation, and reward the sort of retail campaigning Mr. Trump has eschewed. His top rival, Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, has tried to weaken Mr. Trump by pointing to his relatively liberal views on social and economic issues, but what may win the day for the arch-conservative is his field operation.
If it doesn’t, Mr. Trump will be well on his way to winning the nomination, and perhaps permanently rewriting the rules of campaign politics and press coverage. Establishment Republicans may revile Mr. Cruz even more, according to press reports, but the Texas senator is a real bulwark against the celebrity billionaire being able to “make America great again” in his own image.
“We’ve had amazing polls in Iowa. We’ve had amazing polls no matter where we’ve been,” Mr. Trump said tonight. “People are tired and they’re sick of what’s going on in our country.”
Disclosure: Donald Trump is the father-in-law of Jared Kushner, the publisher of Observer Media.