By Zeke J Miller
January 27, 2016

GOP front-runner Donald Trump will boycott Thursday’s Fox News debate over ongoing tensions with Fox News host Megyn Kelly. Trump lambasted Kelly after the first GOP debate after her tough questions placed him on the defensive. Trump demanded that the network pull Kelly from the lineup, a call that Fox rejected, prompting Trump to pull out of the debate. The network claims a top trop aide threatened Kelly before the debate. Trump says he will host a fundraiser for a veterans group in Des Moines, Iowa, instead of participating. Coming as he and Ted Cruz are neck-and-neck in Iowa, Trump’s decision is a high-stakes gamble that could reinforce his outsiderness or backfire as it reveals his thin skin.

Ted Cruz immediately challenged Trump to a one-on-one debate in an effort to horn in on Trump’s news-cycle. His absence puts Cruz in a poor position on the debate stage, as he will be unable to directly combat his leading rival in the state. It will also remove the greatest disincentive to his rivals’ timidity with attacking Trump—his bombastic retorts. With Trump off stage, expect to see some candidates try to land a few punches at the absent candidate. In other debate news, Rand Paul has been elevated to the main stage at Thursday’s debate, while former Virginia Gov. Jim Gilmore will make the undercard. No word if Fox News will show an empty podium.

Trump repeatedly brushed off questions about his shifting stance on abortion Tuesday in a rare press conference, while defending himself as a person of faith. Jeb Bush, meanwhile said he doesn’t believe Trump to be Christian. Trump wasn’t the only candidate to face attacks on his faith, with Mike Huckabee‘s super PAC suggesting in a new ad that Cruz is a “phony” Christian.

President Obama will meet with Bernie Sanders Wednesday in the Oval Office days after appearing to tacitly endorse Hillary Clinton in an interview with Politico. Obama called Clinton best-prepared to serve in the White House, while most of his political team is backing Clinton. Obama is seeking to maintain the notion that he is neutral in the race, as he seeks to avoid alienating motivated Sanders supporters.

Only women showed up in Senate after a snowstorm. The GOP blame-game over Trump’s rise takes on new vigor. And the secret history of the presidential debate buzzer.

Here are your must-reads:

Must Reads

How the Planned Parenthood Video Mastermind Got Charged
TIME’s Alex Altman on what to know about the anti-abortion activist’s indictment

Donald Trump Will Skip the Fox News Debate
A risky move in the days before the caucuses [TIME]

Chris Christie Takes a Hit Over Storm Response
New Jersey governor is faulted for campaigning for Republican presidential nomination while his state digs out from historic snowstorm [Wall Street Journal]

Ted Cruz’s Father Gives Him Edge Among Conservative Christians
For more than a year, Rafael Cruz has been preaching fire and brimstone in support of his son’s presidential campaign [Boston Globe]

Republicans Point Fingers: Who Let Trump Get This Far?
With less than a week to go before Iowa, the GOP’s blame game has already begun [Politico]

Sound Off

“Capitulating to politicians’ ultimatums about a debate moderator violates all journalistic standards, as do threats, including the one leveled by Trump’s campaign manager Corey Lewandowski toward Megyn Kelly. In a call on Saturday with a Fox News executive, Lewandowski stated that Megyn had a ‘rough couple of days after that last debate’ and he ‘would hate to have her go through that again.’ Lewandowski was warned not to level any more threats, but he continued to do so. We can’t give in to terrorizations toward any of our employees.” — Fox News Statement on Trump’s decision to pull out of the debate

“I think, you know, the media’s been handled by him. And I think, you know, folks have allowed him to do things that no other candidate’s ever been allowed to do in American presidential history.” — Chris Christie on Trump in an interview with Fox News

Bits and Bites

Hillary Clinton Goes Back in Time in New Ad [TIME]

Bernie Sanders Goes After Hillary Clinton on Social Security [TIME]

President Obama Will Meet With Bernie Sanders at the White House [TIME]

Tony Perkins Endorses Ted Cruz for President [TIME]

Marco Rubio Pitches Himself As Above Special Interests in Iowa Ad [TIME]

New Hampshire Schedules Unsanctioned Democratic Debate [TIME]

Cruz Challenges Trump to Debate ‘Mano a Mano’ [TIME]

Only Women Show Up in Senate After Snow Storm [Washington Post]

Bernie Sanders Finally Answers the God Question [Washington Post]

The Steep Cost of Cruz’s 99-County Iowa Strategy [Politico]

Bernie Sanders’s Ad Features Cameo From Budding Baseball Star: His Grandson, 4 [New York Times]

Donald Trump Conducts Rare News Conference, and It Turns Testy [New York Times]

Huckabee Backers Slams Ted Cruz As A ‘Phony’ Christian In New Iowa TV Ad [BuzzFeed]

Jeb Bush Says He Doesn’t Think Donald Trump Is a Christian [ABC News]

The Secret History of the Presidential Debate Buzzer [Washington Post]

Contact us at editors@time.com.

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