DES MOINES, IOWA/WASHINGTON – 2016 Republican presidential candidates take the debate stage Thursday night absent their front-runner, billionaire Donald Trump, who will instead seek to starve his rivals of attention at a critical point in the campaign by holding a competing rally.
Trump’s decision to boycott the final debate before Monday’s Iowa caucuses has added a new layer of uncertainty to a race that has defied political convention. He cited “unfair” treatment from debate host Fox News as his reason for skipping the contest.
On Thursday, Trump posted seductive photos of Fox News host and debate moderator Megyn Kelly from a 2010 GQ magazine shoot on his official Twitter page and referred to her as “the bimbo that’s asking presidential questions.”
Trump’s Fox feud dates back to the first Republican primary debate, when moderator Kelly took Trump to task over derogatory statements he’d made in the past at women.
On Monday, Iowa residents will gather in schools, churches and even private homes to choose among the Republican and Democratic candidates battling to be their party’s 2016 presidential nominee — the first in a series of state-by-state contests to choose delegates to each party’s presidential nominating convention.
Some Republican candidates saw Trump’s move as a welcome opportunity to emerge from the long shadow the billionaire has cast over the race, while also hoping it might damage his standing with Iowa voters.
“I think it’ll hurt him that he’s not showing up in the Iowa debate four days before the Iowa caucuses,” former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush told CNN.
Trump has led the Republican race nationally for months, to the surprise of many. In Iowa, however, polls suggest he’s locked in a tight race with Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, a favorite of the conservatives and evangelical Christians who hold significant sway in the state’s Republican caucuses.
With Fox carrying the debate, other cable channels were likely to show Trump’s rally, stealing away at least some viewers who would have otherwise watched the contest.
While earlier debates have been instrumental in the rise and fall of several Republican candidates, they have had minimal apparent impact on Trump’s standing. He’s preferred to make his case to potential voters in national television interviews and on Twitter.
Trump’s absence was likely to turn attention to Cruz, a firebrand conservative disdained by many in his party, and Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, who is hoping a third-place finish in Iowa could help him establish himself as the choice of more traditional Republicans.
Others on the debate stage will have their eye on New Hampshire, where they’re hoping a strong showing in the Feb. 9 primary will jump-start their White House hopes. Bush, Ohio Gov. John Kasich and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie have all devoted the bulk of their campaign resources to New Hampshire.
Also on the main debate stage Thursday: retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson, who has a loyal following in Iowa, and Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, who was relegated to the undercard event in the last debate.
Trump looks to draw a ruptured Republican Party into a prime-time TV ratings battle on Thursday night, as the billionaire shuns the Fox News-sponsored debate to star in his own event at the same time.
His decision to boycott the Republican debate in a spat with network anchor Kelly threatens to pit the large conservative base of the party’s front-runner against the most powerful media force in Republican politics — in a fight that may overshadow anything that happens on the debate stage.
“The ‘debate’ tonight will be a total disaster,” Trump quipped in a Twitter post on Thursday morning. “Low ratings with advertisers and advertising rates dropping like a rock. I hate to see this.”
Trump will host a fundraiser for veterans at Drake University in Des Moines during the Fox debate, according to an invitation circulated by his campaign. A CNN source said the network would likely air parts of the Trump event live.
The move places Trump, a former reality TV star, more squarely in the spotlight even as he shuns the stage. But days before Iowa holds the first nominating contest of the Nov. 8 presidential election, it could also cost him votes. Rivals like Ted Cruz have accused the billionaire of being too afraid to face them in the debate, and while some of Trump’s fans were supportive of his decision, several undecided voters were unimpressed.
“I was on Trump’s doorstep until this whole thing happened. I was disappointed,” said Bryan Moon of West Des Moines, Iowa, who was attending an event for Rubio. “If this is how he’s going to act, that ‘I’m taking my ball and going home,’ then that is just not going to work.”
Voter Jill Ruby, another West Des Moines resident at the Rubio event, was equally put out by Trump’s decision.
“Are you kidding me, a reporter ticked him off?” she said. “He’s a coward. I think it will come back and bite him. That’s not how a president acts, you don’t just run away.”
Fox News chairman Roger Ailes contacted Trump’s daughter, Ivanka, on Wednesday to gauge Trump’s seriousness about dropping out of the debate, but did not seek to change his mind, network officials said, according to The New York Times.
While Trump could cost Fox News debate-night ratings, officials at the network said Rupert Murdoch, the executive co-chairman of Fox’s parent company, 21st Century Fox, gave Ailes his support over the phone, The New York Times said.
Fox News on Tuesday had released a statement that questioned how Trump would handle Russian President Vladimir Putin and Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei if he could not deal with Kelly — a statement Trump said was childish.
Although Trump leads polls of Iowa Republicans over Cruz, a U.S. senator from Texas, many voters remain undecided and are looking to the debate to aid their decision-making.
“It gives people a reason to be disappointed in him and take a look at the other candidates,” said Republican strategist Charlie Black. “It could hurt him with people who might be undecided.”
Trump’s rivals view the debate, which begins at 9 p.m. EST (0200 GMT), as a chance to get their own messages across without having to compete with Trump’s bomb-throwing rhetoric.
“It gives us more time at the microphone and more time to talk about answers to substantive issues that Iowa voters are demanding right now,” said David Kochel, a senior adviser to Republican candidate Jeb Bush.
Early on Thursday, though, Trump tweeted: “Wow, two candidates called last night and said they want to go to my event tonight at Drake University.” He did not elaborate and there was no word from other candidates.
“It is undeniable that what he’s doing is denying his opponents a large audience as they make their final arguments to Iowa voters,” said Eric Fehrnstrom, a Republican strategist who advised the party’s 2012 nominee, Mitt Romney.
Trump’s decision to stage a benefit event to help military veterans instead of participating in the debate was welcomed by some supporters.
Pat Wiltfang, 59, of Grinnell, Iowa, a lifelong Republican who had watched all the previous debates, said she was pleased with Trump’s decision and would gladly skip this one.
“That’s a great move,” said Wiltfang, who plans to caucus for Trump. “All it is is just everyone trying to attack.”
While it might be tempting for Trump’s rivals to use the debate to criticize him aggressively, some Republican analysts are cautioning against a scorched-earth approach.
“It’s delicate for the candidates because you have to pull back from attacking a man who is not there,” said Ari Fleischer, who was White House press secretary for President George W. Bush. “It will be OK to make a passing reference or two, the fact that he’s not there. But if you try to beat him up, it won’t play well because he’s not there to defend himself.”
Campaigning on Wednesday in West Des Moines, Cruz mocked Trump for skipping the debate, calling him a “fragile soul.” He renewed his offer to Trump to debate him one-on-one.
Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, a candidate for the Republican presidential nomination, meanwhile said on Thursday he will attend an event for military veterans being organized in Iowa by Republican front-runner Trump, CNN reported.
Trump, who is involved in a spat with Fox News, has vowed to skip Thursday night’s Republican presidential debate hosted by the network and instead has said he will hold an event to benefit military veterans.
CNN said Huckabee would participate in the Republican debate first and then go to Trump’s event.