What Does a Trump-Free Debate Look Like?

Debate Without Trump AP

So, with Donald Trump presumably out for tomorrow night’s final Republican debate before the crucial Iowa caucuses, what will that event look like?

Trump has already pledged to do his own event benefitting wounded veterans, and CNN has committed to carrying it simultaneous with the debate; a poll posted by Greta Van Susteren showed that 83 percent of her respondents would skip the debate if Trump doesn’t participate.

In some ways, Trump has put himself in a smart position by forgoing the debate. He believes he’s in the lead in Iowa, and the polls bear him out – just one of the last seven polls has Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX) ahead. And by failing to show up for the debate, he’s achieved three key goals: depriving his opponents of a platform upon which to slam him and his record; preventing the moderators from asking him tough questions that could prove problematic three days before the primaries begin; and dominating the headlines, thereby increasing the enthusiasm of his voting base.

Trump also places his opponents in a difficult position by skipping the debate. If they attack him in his absence, they risk making him a victim – and Trump excels at playing the victim. As Trump says, “I keep whining and whining until I win,” and a Trump-bash while he’s raising money for soldiers will give him plenty of ammunition.

Meanwhile, if his opponents don’t attack him – if everyone acts as though he’s not even an issue at the debate – they’ll be depriving the audience of their chief rationale for sticking around. Chris Matthews may be a nasty piece of goods, but he’s right that few voters care about issue debates between Cruz and Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL); far more care about the celebrity-driven gossip balls to which we have grown accustomed this election cycle.

Trump’s best outcome for the debate would be for Rubio and Cruz to pummel one another, damaging both and leaving him unscathed. Jeb Bush, who may or may not be experiencing a surge in New Hampshire, will likely level his low-energy projectiles at candidates ranging from Rubio to Ohio Governor John Kasich to New Jersey Governor Chris Christie. And enraged debating spider monkey Senator Rand Paul (R-KY) will be there too, looking to crack skulls and take names. A massive scrum could benefit the only person who isn’t there – the guy leading the polls.

So, here’s what each candidate needs to do tomorrow night if Trump plays hooky:

Cruz. Cruz will surely be the target of most of the slings and arrows. As the stand-in frontrunner, the strategically unwise Rubio will likely go after Cruz, even though Rubio’s best shot at the nomination lies in Cruz winning Iowa, thereby damaging Trump in New Hampshire. And it won’t just be Rubio. Look for Jeb to take a swing or two; look for the others to pile on, trying to lump in Cruz with Trump. Cruz can fend off most attacks, but he’ll be dragged back into the crab pot by the others – unless he plays it easy, and instead of responding to attacks, lets them glance off as he speaks in big picture terms. That’s hard for Cruz, a natural debater.

Rubio. Rubio’s best bet, as mentioned, is to leave Cruz alone and instead aim his fire at Jeb Bush. That will win him friends and fend off Jeb, who seems to be gaining some ground in New Hampshire. Rubio’s running a strong third in Iowa right now – he needs to maintain that position. But attacking Cruz risks crowning Trump in Iowa, then giving him all the momentum headed into New Hampshire.

Christie. Christie’s been spending all of his time in New Hampshire – he’ll keep pummeling Rubio, hoping to steal support. He could also wheel on the heretofore untouched king of fruit ninjas Kasich, whose father was a mailman. He’ll need a big night – this is his last chance before Iowa to prevent Rubio from becoming the establishment de facto pick.

Carson. Ben Carson will be out after Iowa, so this is his valedictory. Look for some nice inspirational moments, and perhaps a cute joke at which everyone laughs.

Kasich. Kasich has escaped scrutiny mainly because nobody wants to look directly into the fiery ball of rage behind his eyes. But he’s been gaining consistently in New Hampshire polling. Christie and Rubio will likely attack Kasich – and Jeb, who seems to be experiencing new life in New Hampshire polls, could chime in as well. Getting Kasich mad will be their goal; thus far, Kasich has just been angry as opposed to his norm, borderline psychotically enraged. His opponents want him to go full smoke-out-the-ears Yosemite Sam.

Paul. Paul is clinging to the main stage by his fingernails, but he’s always aggressive in debate. Now that it’s clear he’s going nowhere, he’ll probably unload on Rubio over immigration as well as foreign policy. Paul provides Rubio’s stiffest challenge – it was Paul, not Cruz, who did heavy body work on Rubio’s Gang of Eight shenanigans two debates ago. He could do some serious damage to an establishment candidate or two.

Bush. Yes, it now seems that an Emerson College poll shows Trump with 35 percent in New Hampshire and Jeb Bush at 18 percent, with John Kasich at 14 percent. Marco Rubio’s way down at 9 percent. That poll may be an outlier. But Bush is treating it as reality, and that means he’ll be looking to punch somebody, although he has weak wrists. His top target will be Rubio, against whom the Bush super PAC has spent some $20 million. By knocking Rubio down in Iowa, Bush hopes to destroy him in New Hampshire.

Trump’s absence from the debate leaves a gaping hole. That could backfire against Trump in Iowa, given that nearly half of all voters in Iowa still haven’t made up their mind. But if the other candidates punch at each other for two hours while Trump rides high in the polls, his strategic decision could look better tomorrow night than it does now.

Ben Shapiro is Senior Editor-At-Large of Breitbart News, Editor-in-Chief of DailyWire.com, and The New York Times bestselling author, most recently, of the book, The People vs. Barack Obama: The Criminal Case Against The Obama Administration (Threshold Editions, June 10, 2014). Follow Ben Shapiro on Twitter @benshapiro.


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