Four years ago, when Donald Trump unsuccessfully tried to assemble the 2012 Republican presidential field for a forum, he lamented to an interviewer about the disinterested candidates, “We’re not seeing a lot of courage.”
The interviewer was Megyn Kelly, who he now cites as a reason for skipping tonight’s Fox News debate that she’s moderating. When asked if he would be a better moderator than her, he replied, “No. I could never beat you. That wouldn’t even be close. That would be no contest.” He added, “You have done a great job, by the way. And I mean it.” Now, of course, he lambastes Kelly’s professionalism and, with his implacable class, the “blood coming out of her wherever.” It’s just the latest example of his inconsistency, and we’re forced to wonder if 2012 Trump would say 2016 Trump lacks courage.
Once Trump announced he wasn’t debating, I told myself that for my preview of tonight’s debate in Des Moines — the last debate before actual voting begins — I wouldn’t spend much time on him. I am so sick of his remarkable ability to dominate the news. All we’ve done in the last day is talk about what he’s not doing. While we’re doing that, we’re not talking about what the other candidates are doing. It’s a sort of microcosm of the entire Republican Primary; Trump says outlandish things that the media scrambles to cover, and while they do that they’re not covering the other candidates, who therefore have difficulty winning over voters. Trump has expertly manipulated the media for this entire primary. I don’t want to get manipulated, too.
And yet here I am, talking about Trump. I’m not proud of it. There’s a reason I sheepishly avoided the mirror this morning.
I must admit that the potential ramifications of this decision is too fascinating to ignore. Consider the following possibilities:
- With voting so near, some people are paying close attention to the primary for the first time this election cycle. Are they now greeted with the perception of “Donald Ducking”? (#DonaldDuck)
- On the other hand, with his withdrawal from the debate, is he successfully dodging bullets from seven guns? As this is the last debate before voting begins, if we were ever going to see the entire field gang up on him, it would be tonight. It’s the last high-profile event, the last high-ratings television moment, before the Iowa caucuses. The candidates, afraid of a backfire that could doom their campaign, have often avoided direct confrontation with him. But now, with his late January leads in Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina, and nationally, it’s clear that they must at least try something or probably lose anyway. Trump’s absence, however, isn’t giving the field its chance. By vacating the center podium, all those bullets pass right through his empty spot; it’s only each other they can still spray.
- Then again! Maybe no Trump means he can’t deflect others’ charges like he did so perfectly with his 9/11 response the last time around. Instead, the candidates can wail away without worrying their poll numbers or mothers will get made fun of.
- However! Without Trump, the ratings won’t be there. Many of his supporters probably won’t tune in, so none of them will have their minds changed.
- And yet! Will Iowans feel slighted by this decision? They cherish the luxury of being the litmus test for the nation. Many are still undecided, and Trump’s last, best chance to set himself apart from the field will fall by the wayside. Might these late undecideds rule him out merely because of this decision?
As you can see, I keep turning myself around on this one. If I had to put my chips down, at this point I’d have to wager on this decision not hurting him. He still dominates the media cycle, and his supporters applaud anything he says or does anyway.
Okay, moving on for real. I won’t mention Trump’s name from now on. When I need to mention him, I’ll just use the word Potato.
In Des Moines tonight, we once again have two tiers of debates. To reach the main debate, candidates had to place in the top six in national polling or in the top five in either Iowa or New Hampshire. Short of that, to reach the undercard debate, a candidate needed to hit at least 1 percent in any of the five most recent national polls recognized by Fox News. With such a lenient qualification to make the matinee, we have the beginning of the Jim Gilmore comeback!
Here is the 7:00 EST undercard field with their national Real Clear Politics national averages in parentheses:
- Jim Gilmore (0.0)
- Rick Santorum (0.2)
- Carly Fiorina (2.2)
- Mike Huckabee (2.5)
Santorum and Huckabee are still waiting for their old Iowa magic, but it’s just not happening. Carly Fiorina is also done; her latest debate dominance of the last early contest didn’t translate to any kind of a polling bump. Without debates, she’s a nonfactor. Unlike Santorum and Huckabee’s prayers for an Iowa miracle, she’s counting on divine intervention in New Hampshire. Meanwhile, Jim Gilmore, not unlike another forgotten part of a foursome, is just happy to be there.
As for the main field, commencing at a brutally late 9:00 PM (I need to be up at 5, RNC; help a blogger out!), here they are:
Rand Paul (2.0 RCP national average): All of a sudden Rand Paul isn’t whining about debate criteria! Last time, he complained about “arbitrary” polling requirements to make the prime time debate. Now he barely made the main field (thanks to recent Iowa polling) ahead of the likes of Fiorina and Huckabee, who are actually polling better nationally than he is. Not a peep from Paul about arbitrary requirements now! I’m happy about it, though. It’s good to have the libertarian policy wonk back. With Paul in and Potato out, the debate just got a lot more substantive.
John Kasich (2.5): Kasich also polls no better than the undercard’s Huckabee, but his impressive surge in New Hampshire entered him into the main field under that qualifier. Tonight will be his last night in Iowa, as he’s totally given up on the state and gone full Jon Huntsman 2.0 on us; he’ll spend the next 12 days in New Hampshire. Fresh off a Boston Globe endorsement, he’s hoping his more moderate rhetoric can win over the state, so watch for that tonight. But bad news: Jon Huntsman also won the Globe’s endorsement four years ago on his way to just third in New Hampshire followed by dropping out.
Chris Christie (3.7): Like Kasich, Christie is mostly counting on a strong New Hampshire result. However, unlike the Ohio governor, New Jersey’s chief executive hasn’t given up on the Hawkeye State quite yet. He scheduled more stops in it for the days leading up to the caucuses. He’s hoping his strong retail political ability can help steal a top five finish. If the news networks can show him on the first page of Iowa results, he’ll get a nice boost and maybe regain some footing in the Granite State. He needs something to shake things up, tonight. After looking strong in New Hampshire at the year’s turn, he’s now been passed by Kasich and Bush.
Jeb Bush (5.0): Speaking of Bush, he’ll be trying to keep Christie out of the top five in Iowa. Fifth in the state is where Bush sits now, but not by much; Paul and Christie are on his heels. If he finishes out of the top five here, it will be tough to make a pitch to New Hampshirites that he can still win a national campaign. That being said, an Emerson poll out of New Hampshire yesterday showed him with a huge pop to second place with 18 points. No candidate not named Potato had hit 18 points or higher in a New Hampshire poll since JUNE. Is Bush about to take Kasich’s Granite State mojo?
Ben Carson (7.8): He continues to fade. A couple October polls had him with a double digit lead in Iowa, but now he’s at a meager 7.6 percent in the state, closer to Bush in fifth than the top three. Tonight he’ll channel his evangelicalism in an attempt to salvage a top three finish on Monday, but I don’t like his chances. Despite his strong Iowa ground game, I’m guessing many of supporters will desert to Cruz on Monday in order to carry more weight at the caucuses. This campaign has been over for a couple months.
Marco Rubio (11.0): Ah, now we get to the viable candidates. Rubio still sees himself as the Republican uniter who is ready to lead the party against Hillary Clinton. He seems to be the only candidate in the main pack that isn’t piling on Potato’s decision to not debate. For examples:
- Christie declared, “America wants a fighter who shows up.”
- Cruz said, “Show up for the job interview if you’d actually like the job.”
- Bush tweeted,”Do you know who else is scared of tough qs from Fox & @megynkelly? Barack Obama. Enough whining.”
- Paul quipped, “the IQ of the debate went up a couple dozen points.”
Rubio, on the other hand, called Trump’s “theatrics” merely a “sideshow” that has “nothing to do with defeating Hillary Clinton.” He added, “We don’t have time for these kinds of distractions.” If tonight’s debaters go after the empty podium, I’ll be interested to see if Rubio contributes to bring down the leader or if he’ll continue to play the long game and let everyone else do the dirty work.
Ted Cruz (19.3): Cruz spearheaded “Ducking Donald” over the last day (including launching a website!), and has challenged Potato to a one-on-one debate. It’s just the latest escalation of their Iowa feud. Cruz will go full-blown evangelical conservatism tonight in order to win the state last won by religious right darlings Santorum and Huckabee. Cruz badly needs the state. A win in Iowa and he secures a top three finish in New Hampshire and the inside edge over Potato in South Carolina. That sets up a big Super Tuesday, including in his home and massive state of Texas. But a loss in Iowa keeps him out of the top three in New Hampshire, and it’s Potato with the advantage in South Carolina and beyond.
Potato (36.2): Instead of debating, he’ll be doing a veteran fundraiser. What a great guy, right? Well, sure, even the sun shines on something or other once in a while. Of course, he could do this fundraiser any night, to say nothing of just giving a donation from his billions. Even selfless things can be done for selfish reasons. This is a fundraiser of political expediency. His decision has given us a fascinating development, and we’re all eager to see how it turns out for our spudly billionaire.
The last debate before voting. WATCH!