MILFORD, NH — (CNN) Donald Trump on Tuesday said his decision to skip the last Republican debate before the Iowa caucuses may have led to his second-place finish in the Hawkeye State.
“That could’ve been with the debate,” Trump acknowledged to reporters in Milford, New Hampshire, where he was introduced and endorsed by former Massachusetts Sen. Scott Brown. “I think some people were disappointed that I didn’t go into the debate.”
Iowa entrance polls showed most voters who made up their minds in the final days before the caucuses settled on chief rival Sen. Ted Cruz and Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, not Trump. The nationwide GOP front-runner had skipped Thursday’s Fox News debate due to an ongoing feud with the network.
Still, Trump said he would make the same decision again, pointing to the $6 million he raised for veterans’ charities.
Later Tuesday, Trump told Fox News’ Sean Hannity that he “didn’t have much of a ground game” in Iowa because he “didn’t think I was going to be winning.”
But the billionaire businessman insisted in both the news conference and later in a raucous rally here that his runner-up spot defied expectations, contrary to pundits’ view that his second place position marked a clear defeat.
“I think that we did real well. I didn’t expect to do so well,” Trump declared, despite predicting a “tremendous victory” on Monday hours before Iowans headed to the caucuses that would ultimately crown Cruz the winner.
And then Trump, who himself raised expectations by repeatedly citing Iowa polls showing him pulling ahead of Cruz, blamed the polls.
“I guess what did happen is one poll came out that said I’m four or five points ahead and that maybe built up a false expectation for some people,” Trump told reporters.
He added that he was not expected to do well in Iowa when he launched his campaign and said he “would have spent more time” in the Hawkeye State had he known his campaign had a real shot there.
Trump refused to concede any mistakes his campaign may have made in Iowa and insisted that New Hampshire — where Trump is doubling and tripling his closest competitors in the polls — would be a better fit to the campaign he has waged.
Trump also said he was not concerned about how his runner-up finish in Iowa could affect the brand he has promoted throughout his career and campaign: that of a winner.
“I think my brand is doing great,” Trump said in response to a question from CNN.
And the optics of his Tuesday night rally in New Hampshire aimed to re-polish any dents that image may have suffered as a result of his Iowa loss.
After Brown and conservative firebrand Ann Coulter amped up the crowd, Trump took the stage to a packed and boisterous crowd, declaring that the “movement” he has sparked will carry him to victory.
New Hampshire’s quickly approach primary contest on February 9 did not, however, flip Trump into attack mode.
He declined an opportunity in the news conference to knock Rubio, who is riding high after delivering a stronger-than-expected third place finish in Iowa.
Instead, Trump knocked the media for what he said was over-hyping Rubio’s performance in Iowa.
“People didn’t talk about my second place,” Trump added. “They didn’t talk about it as positively as they should have.”
The media, he said, are “the worst people ever.”
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