Santorum, Huckabee to attend Trump's anti-debate event

Mike Huckabee and Rick Santorum will attend Donald TrumpDonald TrumpWould Aretha Franklin perform at Trump inauguration? ‘Good question.’ Ryan: Dakota pipeline pause is ‘big-government decision-making at its worst’ Ivanka was finalizing Japanese business deal at time of Trump, Abe meeting: report MORE's pro-veterans event on Thursday at the same time as Fox News's prime-time presidential debate.

Spokesmen for both candidates confirmed to The Hill that the Republican presidential will still participate in Thursday's undercard GOP debate, but will head to the Trump event after. 

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The undercard debate begins at 7 p.m. Eastern, two hours before Trump's event is slated to start three miles away. That gives candidates who failed to reach the main stage the freedom to participate, while anyone slated for the main stage would have to skip the debate altogether to attend. 

Huckabee, who previously hosted a show on Fix, said that he didn't speak with Trump directly about the plans, but that his staff had expressed interest in conversation with the Trump campaign. He added that he doesn't believe the decision to join Trump at the event sends a negative message to those candidates taking part in the main-stage debate. 

"It's to honor the troops, it's not an endorsement of Donald Trump's candidacy. I'm still running for president, we've got the caucuses Monday night, but I'm delighted to join with Donald Trump in an effort to salute the veterans," Huckabee said Thursday on CNN's "Wolf." 

"I'm not invited to the main stage, I would have loved to have been on that stage ... if they aren't sitting out in the audience watching me, I don't feel any compulsion that I have to be there for that debate.  

Trump's campaign scheduled the event after he decided to pull out of Fox News's debate because the network issued a strongly worded statement in response to his calls to remove Megyn Kelly as a moderator. 
 
His campaign manager, Corey Lewandowski, has said the event will raise funds for veterans organizations, but the campaign has not elaborated which ones will benefit. 
 
Trump tweeted Thursday morning that two campaigns had reached out with interest in joining his event, but he did not identify the candidates. 
 
His decision to skip the debate has prompted criticism from his GOP rivals.
 
Ted Cruz, his closest challenger in recent polls, challenged him to a one-on-one debate this Saturday, and two Cruz-aligned super-PACs promised to donate $1.5 million to veterans organizations if Trump agreed.
 
The decision by both candidates to stand by Trump despite criticism from other candidates could be seen by supporters as a signal to support Trump.
 
Both Huckabee, the 2008 Iowa caucus winner, and Santorum, the 2012 caucus winner, have long histories with the state's evangelical population. 
 
But they have seen those voters flee him in droves, mostly to Trump and Cruz, and both lag behind the majority of the field in fundraising. 
 
While other rivals framed Trump's decision as fear to defend his record, Huckabee lauded Trump for manipulating the media during an interview this week on Fox's "Hannity" and jokingly asked to take his spot on the main debate stage. 
  
During the CNN interview, Huckabee said Trump would be on his vice presidential shortlist. 
 
Huckabee also didn't argue with the assertion that he'd be more comfortable with Trump as the nominee than Cruz, and took the opportunity to criticize Cruz for cozying up to hedge-fund billionaires and for moderating his stances depending on the audience.  
 
- Updated at 1:46 p.m.