What to watch at the GOP debate, with or without Donald Trump

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WASHINGTON — Republican presidential candidates are set to clash Thursday night in their last debate before Monday’s Iowa caucuses.

Plans for the showdown were thrown into turmoil after Trump, the national front-runner, said he would not show up after a long-running dispute with Fox News. Still, there’s likely to be plenty of drama, both on the debate stage and at the veterans event Trump plans to attend instead.

Here are five things to watch on debate night.

1. Can Trump win a debate without showing up?

Trump is overshadowing the debate even as his campaign says he won’t show up.

He has shown, yet again, that the normal rules of politics don’t apply to him and made a statement that no one messes with Trump. And if his army of followers simply decide not to tune in, he’ll be punishing Fox by denying them the monster ratings this year’s debates have attracted.

Trump won’t be gasping for the oxygen of publicity because the media has been on a 24/7 Trump binge for months, and the lead-up to Thursday’s debate has been no exception: His promised nonappearance has been the major story line.

By staying away, Trump would avoid a new and potentially damaging engagement with Texas Sen. Ted Cruz after their showdown in the last debate as well as dodge other opponents desperate to draw him into a last-minute gaffe before Monday’s caucuses.

At the same time, anti-Trump rivals have a clear opening to claim their tough-talking nemesis is running scared. And there will be no one to defend Trump if the field decides to pile on — though experience suggests it’s just as likely his GOP rivals will anger Trump’s loyal supporters and hurt themselves.

Still, Trump is willing to pass up a final chance to convince Iowa voters currently leaning toward other candidates or even wondering whether they will show up on Monday night. With his fate in Iowa depending on turning out new voters, a no-show at the debate is definitely a risk. Iowa political activists are also highly sensitive to any perceived slight toward the caucuses, and devaluing the state’s last big debate of the cycle would certainly fit that category.

If Cruz, for example, shines — and wins on Monday night — Trump’s gambit is sure to be second-guessed.

2. Cruz in control?

If Trump is indeed a no-show, Cruz may stand alone in the crossfire.

He has been fighting a close race with Trump in Iowa and is well-positioned in a string of Southern states that go to the polls in March.

But the Texas senator does have work to do. Though Hawkeye State experts talk up his grass-roots political operation, the conventional wisdom of just a few weeks ago that Cruz was gliding toward a caucus triumph is suddenly looking different: The latest CNN “poll of polls” in the state has Trump up by 5%.

After his one-time truce with Trump buckled as the Iowa vote has approached, Cruz is now to be deprived of a chance to rough up the real estate mogul himself and shave off a few hundred votes that could be important come Monday night.

Still, his rival’s expected absence gives Cruz the chance to dominate the outsider, conservative spot in the debate on his own.

And there’s a silver lining for the Texan: With Trump elsewhere, no one is likely to hound him over whether he is eligible to be president because he was born in Canada.

3. How much ‘silliness’ will there be?

It will be odd to watch a Republican debate without seeing candidates mocked for anemic poll numbers and Jeb Bush getting bullied. Trump’s disdain for fellow candidates, particularly Bush, has been a staple of previous Republican debates. The dynamic of the evening will be much different withe the ferocious front-runner offstage.

Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, for one, won’t miss Trump, telling CNN’s Jake Tapper on Wednesday that Trump only brought “silliness, bombast and empty rhetoric” to the previous debates.

So it’s possible that Thursday night’s debate could be a more civilized, policy-heavy affair on big questions — including tax policy, the war against ISIS and the wisdom of “boots on the ground” interventions abroad.

But several candidates may be spoiling for a fight and could toughen the tone.

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, for instance, had hoped to brand himself as the straight talker of the Republican presidential race but saw his opening closed off by Trump. So, he has an incentive to make some noise. There’s little love lost among the rest of the field for Cruz — and there may be a replay of a tense clash between the Texas senator and the other young potential heir of the conservative movement, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio.

Bush, a former Florida governor, already seems to be in a sour mood, warning in an interview with CNN’s Gloria Borger on Wednesday that his fellow candidates should not suddenly act tough now that Trump is gone.

“They’ve all been kind of polite and scared of him, I guess,” he said. “Now that he’s not there they might pile on, which I think will look a little weird.”

4. Who will win the debate within a debate?

Thursday’s debate will be in Iowa. But many of the candidates’ minds are already in New Hampshire. Of those on stage on Thursday, only Cruz seems to have a realistic chance of taking down Trump in the caucuses, if the polls are accurate.

So the focus of many of the rest, including Rubio, Bush, Christie and Ohio Gov. John Kasich, will be on the next contest in the Granite State the following week, which could vault one of them into the long-vacant spot of establishment alternative to Trump and put the others’ campaigns on life support.

Desperate for survival, the more conventional candidates have been waging a vicious advertising war in New Hampshire, and the high stakes could mean their internecine war spills over into live TV on Thursday night.

5. Will the candidates feel the Bern?

On Wednesday, Bernie Sanders was at the White House. On Thursday, he could find himself under a sudden GOP assault.

The suddenly famous Vermont senator has a real chance of beating Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton in the first two nominating clashes.

So there’s a possibility that after spending months slamming Clinton over Benghazi, her emails and her integrity, the Republican candidates will at least train a little fire Sanders’ way.

While Sanders is still a long shot to win the nomination, the self-described democratic socialist’s surging campaign offers an opening for a Republican with an eye on the general election to portray the Democrats as a party way to the left of the mainstream. And whether they do so will say something about how seriously they take his chances.

Theo Keith reports from Iowa

4 comments

  • Angel

    This is a sign of Trump bowing out. Really Donald backing down from a woman! You really don’t want to be president, you just want to see how popular you are. You can’t possibly expect to solve problems with other countries by saying it’s my way or the highway. We already have enough problems because of Bush. You would cause more chaos. I knew you were phony from the beginning!

  • Dave Francis (@DaveFrancis8)

    MAYBE AMERICANS CAN GRASP THE AMERICAN DREAM AGAIN

    The Super PACs can stick their campaign contributions up their nose, as Donald Trump doesn’t want any of the cash. Its tainted with the proverbial ‘Blood Money’, expecting their puppets to pay them back in kind. Do you really think that the affluent elitists who say they are Conservatives are just giving millions of dollars out the kindness of their hearts? These Rino’s as Jeb Bush, Christie, Rubio, Santorum, and Kasich will definitely do the bidding to the Special Interests. Although not part of the hard core establishment, Huckabee, Paul, Florina and Ben Carson still must survive in this Presidential race, they have to rely on donations. Perhaps not so much where Carly Florina is concerned, but this is why NOTHING ever gets completed for the American people in Washington.

    COULD IT BE THAT THE MILLIONS OF TRUMP SUPPORTERS WILL BOYCOTT THE TODAY’S FOX NEWS DEBATE? NOT GOING TO LISTEN TO THE SAME OLD RHETORIC? BEING VACANT FROM THE DEBATE IS NOT THE BEST WAY TO GO, BUT THEN FOX NEWS IS ANOTHER MEMBER OF THE CONSORTIUM OF BIG BUSINESS THAT WILL HARDLY STAND FOR DONALD TRUMPS PLANS.

    THE PEOPLES RIGHTS ARE BOUGHT BY THE LOBBYISTS ON K STREET, FOR THEIR OWNERS WHO REMAIN OUT OF SIGHT. THE WEALTH OF THE SPECIAL INTERESTS CAN WHINE ALL THEY WANT, BUT IF YOU CANNOT TRUST BUT A FEW POLITICIANS, THEN OUR NATION IS A LOST CAUSE AND OUR ONLY CHANCE IS TRUMP?

    I for one am unable to count the politicians secretly on the take for what is available on the auction block, in voting against serious issues facing this country. This lame duck president doesn’t care anymore, and his weakness has called massive costs to every taxpayer. He has hesitated on foreign wars and now we have ISIL at our gates. Sure they are trying to do something now, but they are already here in hidden cells and ready to break out at any time to butcher us. His passionate idea in settling Syrian refugees is going to come back and haunt him, when the killing starts and the rapes begin from men who only know a medieval culture of suppressing women’s rights.

    It ALL happens behind closed doors, shuttered windows in the dead of night. As an example the Omnibus budget of 1.2 Trillion dollars was passed at 2 am in the morning, without any participation of the people. So ask yourself, do the US population have any say in the matter how most of these morons vote. That’s why Americans have no faith in this government and previous administrations as we cannot trust them anymore; this president, the executive branch, Justice Department or any of lackey agencies are completely oblivious to US.The Republicans never did anything to cut funds, so we have another round of printing money for Obama freebie games. Ask yourself Is Obama–Liberal! Democrat! Or an Extreme Socialist? Just like Bernie Sanders, Hillary Clinton whose philosophy is to take other people money, heavily tax us and spend the rest on the Deadbeats and spongers who are worse than a virus. Speaker Ryan, McConnell gave him everything he wanted, including funds to illegally lodge foreign nationals who have broken into America and stolen of jobs from American workers. This administration has trodden our Constitution into the slime they reside in.

    Both political parties are equally to blame for the lose of jobs, as lifting the cap on working visas for semi-skilled foreign workers, and once again stealing jobs from our college kids, our older workers-a huge profit maker of cheap labor.

    Voters should not be bamboozled by the dirty attack ads against Donald Trump. It should be remembered that the majority of the mainstream press is owned by six companies, and use their influence in lying to the Public. Even the news is censored to the truth of what’s really happening in the world? That’s why I watch the ONE AMERICAN NEWS NETWORK ON CABLE. It is a family news station that offers the facts and not dreamed up lies. They will be broadcasting the debate of Donald Trump for the Vets.

    Moreover the Democrats or GOP establishment place their hand on the holy book, pledging to stand firm with their allegiance to the United States, the people and defend this country from enemies foreign and domestic, but King Obama has lied to the American people and shoved down our throat millions of illegal aliens.

    Since 1996, an infuriated Congress has passed seven separate laws requiring biometric entry-exit screening. Presidents Clinton, Bush, and Obama have all failed in their constitutional duty to faithfully execute those laws. And for 20 years, Congress has failed to guarantee its laws are taken as more than mere submissions by the president. Flouting the law and refusing to implement a system designed specifically to protect Americans from terrorism and job theft is a perfect example of why the American people don’t trust their government to fix the “broken immigration system.” WITH TRUMP THE WALL WILL BE CONSTRUCTED THIS TIME AND AUGMENTED BY MANDATORY E-VERIFY, WITH THE NECESSARY RECRUITMENT OF AGENTS TO ENFORCE THE SYSTEM.

    The Democrat agenda is to bring into America anybody who will vote for them. Virginia has passed a law, that if you are going to vote you need official ID? However that is not the policy in Blue states like California, where an illegal alien can get a drivers license and sign the Motor Voter application. How many non citizens will get to vote illegally on the West coast?

    Roy Beck, President of Numbersusa wrote an Op-ed, published in The Hill.

    “A biometric exit system is essential to deterring visa overstays effectively. It will help to eliminate errors that regularly occur when collecting and accessing biographic data, and will make identity fraud more difficult. It is easy to steal someone else’s identity papers but not so their fingerprints. A biometric screening system will enhance and facilitate data-sharing, which will lead to better national security, while also helping to combat international terrorism. Just last month, State Department officials testified to Congress that they have revoked the visas of 9,500 foreign nationals since 2001 because they found evidence those individuals were connected to terrorism after they had been admitted into the United States. Because of the lack of a biometric exit system, the officials had to admit that they have no idea whether those 9,500 individuals are still in the United States or not.”

    NOTHING and I mean nothing is going to stop me from voting for Donald Trump. MY family stands with me, friends, and even some of my old brothers who fought in Nam. I even have my cousin and Mother in law, which supported the Democrats, is voting this time as an Independent for Trump. They have no liking for the Republicans, but this time it’s different. Like me they are sick and tired of Obamas policy of not stopping the illegal alien invasion. HAVE YOU NOTICED THAT THE GOP WHO ARE STAGING THEIR RUN FOR OFFICE, AND NOW EXPLOITING THE TRUMP WALL & BACKING STRINGENT IMMIGRATION ENFORCEMENT?

    If my home town was in Iowa or South Carolina, rain, sleet or snow would not stop me from dragging myself to the Caucus or the Primaries. We must change our path as with one of the other Presidential Candidates we will stay in the same quagmire. The rest of the Republicans don’t have the tough skin of Donald Trump to take on the GOP establishment; the Democrats and spit them out?

  • molon labe

    Elephant, wtf? “A reversed pentagram, with two points projecting upwards, is a symbol of evil and attracts sinister forces because it overturns the proper order of things and demonstrates the triumph of matter over spirit. It is the goat of lust attacking the heavens with its horns, a sign execrated by initiates.”

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