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MARSHALLTOWN, Iowa (AP): Donald Trump declared he would boycott the last Republican debate before the Iowa caucuses, leading Texas Sen. Ted Cruz to challenge him to a one-on-one debate. Adding intrigue to the Democratic race, the White House said President Barack Obama would host Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders for an Oval Office meeting.
The dual developments on Tuesday created new ripples of uncertainty six days before voting in the presidential race begins. Both parties were bracing for close contests in Iowa that will determine which of their two leading candidates will carry the momentum from a victory into the New Hampshire primary the following week and beyond.
Next Monday, Iowa residents will gather in schools, churches and even private homes to choose among the Republican and Democratic candidates battling to be their party's 2016 presidential nominee — the first in a series of state-by-state contests to choose delegates to each party's presidential nominating convention.
The Iowa caucuses will be the first test of whether political newcomer Trump's unorthodox campaign can get the thousands of enthusiastic supporters who show up at rallies to turn out when it matters. Cruz is believed to have assembled a strong get-out-the-vote operation. Sanders is counting on enthusiastic younger voters to boost turn out at the caucuses to offset Clinton's organizational strength.
Trump raised the prospect of skipping the debate as he blasted Fox News Channel for "playing games" and including anchor Megyn Kelly as a debate moderator. Trump's campaign later said he definitely will not participate.
The race among Democrats was no more settled six days from the leadoff Iowa caucuses, with Sanders and Hillary Clinton locked in a close contest and details about their debate plans unclear. But the fireworks Tuesday were on the Republican side.
Trump said he would hold his own event in Iowa during the debate to raise money for wounded veterans. The billionaire businessman dismissed Kelly as a "third-rate reporter" who is bad at her job and had been "toying" with him — reprising a squabble that erupted after a debate Kelly co-hosted last year.
Kelly shot back on her nightly show, arguing that Trump is used to getting his way but can't control the media. She said her network and CEO Roger Ailes had made it clear to Trump for months that they wouldn't change their moderator line-up.
"I'll be there," Kelly said. "The debate will go on with or without Mr. Trump."
Trump's pullout came after Fox News Channel tweaked the Republican front-runner for asking his Twitter followers whether he should debate. The network, in a sarcastically worded statement, said it had learned from a "secret back channel" that the leaders of Iran and Russia planned to treat Trump unfairly if elected.
"A nefarious source tells us that Trump has his own secret plan to replace the Cabinet with his Twitter followers to see if he should even go to those meetings," read the statement from a Fox News Channel representative.
Trump's declaration was an unexpected, if not unpredictable, twist in the final days of the Iowa campaign. The real estate mogul had threatened repeatedly to boycott debates before, only to ultimately acquiesce.
By picking a fight publicly, Trump assured that even if he goes through with his plan not to show up Thursday, his absence will be the center of attention.
Cruz, appearing at an evening rally, offered to face Trump "mano a mano" anytime. He said Trump was scared of Kelly, telling supporters that skipping the debate was like refusing a job interview.
"If someone did that, didn't show up at the interview, you know what you'd say? You're fired," Cruz said, riffing on Trump's famous rejoinder from his reality TV show "The Apprentice."
There was drama on the Democratic side as well.
As Sanders left Iowa and Minnesota for his meeting with Obama on Wednesday, it was being watched for signs of the president's leanings. He's sought to avoid showing favoritism, and White House spokesman Josh Earnest said the meeting would be informal, with "no formal agenda."
Just a day earlier, Clinton had been soaking in presidential praise. In a Politico interview, Obama called her "wicked smart" and immensely qualified to run the country, in his most extensive comments to date on the race. Obama has met with Clinton, his former secretary of state and 2008 primary opponent, periodically. Unlike the Sanders meeting, the White House typically hasn't disclosed those sessions in advance.
Democrats, too, faced fresh uncertainty about their debates — marquee events in the presidential race.
Following criticism that the Democratic Party had limited debates to help Clinton, New Hampshire's largest newspaper and cable TV station MSNBC said Tuesday they would host an additional debate next week just before the state holds its first-in-the-nation primary election. But the Democratic National Committee chairwoman said the party had "no plans" to sanction more debates, and Clinton's campaign said she'd only participate if the other candidates agree. So far, only former Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley, who is polling in the low singled digits, has said he'll participate.
Sanders, in an Associated Press interview Tuesday, waxed confident that he had an "excellent chance" to win Iowa. He predicted success in Iowa and New Hampshire would beget more support from party leaders who have firmly backed Clinton as the party's best chance for a general election victory.