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Trump says Romney lacks the 'courage' to participate in Newsmax debate

Businessman Donald Trump on Thursday suggested Mitt Romney lacks the "courage" to participate in the presidential debate he is scheduled to moderate in December, but denied that it would have any impact on his endorsement decision.

"I’m disappointed that he didn’t seem to I don’t want to use the word courage but didn’t seem to have the courage to do the debate," Trump said of Romney on CNN's "The Situation Room," pointing to the former Massachusetts governor's precarious situation position as a front-runner in the polls. "I’m very disappointed in Mitt from that standpoint. But it won’t have any impact on my decision."

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Trump is set to moderate a Dec. 27 debate sponsored by conservative media outlet Newsmax that will be televised from Iowa on ION television. Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus on Wednesday discouraged the candidates from participating in the debate because Trump has threatened to run as an Independent candidate if he does not like the eventual Republican nominee.

Trump on Thursday maintained that he wants to keep his "options open" when it comes to jumping into the race.

"They have a few candidates who would absolutely be the wrong candidate," he said, but went on to deny that there is a conflict of interest between him and the Republican candidates. "If I endorse somebody, and that somebody happens to win, obviously, I’m not going to be running against somebody that I endorsed."

Influential groups Tea Party Express and Grover Norquist's Americans for Tax Reform both released statements supporting the debate, suggesting it has the conservative stamp of approval.

"Donald Trump has demonstrated his keen interest in identifying a responsible conservative to the White House, and his celebrity and commitment to conservative policies make him an ideal moderator for the debate," Tea Party Express Chairwoman Amy Kremer said in a statement.

Newt Gingrich, who has risen rapidly in the polls and seems poised to become the more conservative, "anti-Romney" candidate, was quick to agree to participate in the debate.

Ron Paul and Jon Huntsman quickly refused to participate, though, naming Trump as an inappropriate choice of moderator. Romney and Rick Perry cited scheduling conflicts in turning down the debate. Michele Bachmann opted out on Thursday evening without giving a specific reason, leaving Rick Santorum and Gingrich as the only presidential candidates so far who have agreed to participate. 

"What do they have to lose when they're [falling in the polls]," Trump said, adding he was "very surprised" when Romney turned down the debate and thought Rick Perry in particular should have agreed to participate.