The Republican Party will begin its seventh and final pre-Iowa debate the same way it began its first: obsessed over Donald Trump and his hijacking of the GOP’s presidential primary.
The only difference is that when the candidates gather in Des Moines on Thursday night, the loudest elephant probably won’t be in the room. With his typical grandiosity, Trump has pulled out of the debate because of a spat with Fox News, the channel televising the event. Yet while he’s announced plans to hold a competing rally and benefit to support wounded veterans, no one would be surprised if Trump made a dramatic, last-minute, or even mid-debate entrance, announcing a “deal” that only he could strike.
Trump is correct about one thing: Without the front-runner there, the debate loses some of its luster. Will Fox show an empty podium in the middle of the stage? (The network says no.) Will the moderators—including Trump target Megyn Kelly—kick things off by giving his opponents a free opportunity to attack and mock his absence? (Prediction: Yes) Will a slip in the event’s television ratings prove Trump right about his outsized influence on the debates? (Prediction: Also yes.)
No matter how many viewers tune out, a Trump-less debate offers an opportunity for most of his rivals, who at this point in the race are mainly vying to finish a strong third or fourth in Iowa to propel themselves forward in New Hampshire and beyond. The exception is Ted Cruz, the Republican who stands to lose the most because of Trump’s absence. He’ll miss the chance to go toe-to-toe with the one man above him in the polls and recover some of the ground he lost to Trump since the last debate. Cruz might also become more of a target for contenders like Marco Rubio, Chris Christie, John Kasich, and Jeb Bush. They know they’ll need to knock off Cruz before they can get to Trump, although the Texan’s strong debating skills make that a challenging task.