GOP to debate in Trump's shadow
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DES MOINES, Iowa — Thursday evening’s GOP presidential debate will be dominated by a man who isn’t there: Donald TrumpDonald TrumpTrump: I would have 'far less reason to tweet' if I was covered accurately GOP senator calls on Obama to halt Guantanamo detainee transfers Report: Ivanka Trump, Jared Kushner plan move to DC MORE.

The Republican front-runner insists he won’t participate in the clash just four days before Monday’s pivotal caucuses. 

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The fundamental question is whether his gambit will prove to be a stroke of genius or an impulsive folly.

Trump’s stated reason for skipping the debate is his annoyance with Fox News, but he may have a more strategic motive. 

The business mogul has re-established his lead in most Iowa polls after a short period of being supplanted by rival Ted CruzTed CruzWeek ahead: AT&T-Time Warner merger under scrutiny Trump could be the most significant president of our time Cruz: I'd rather have Trump talk to Taiwan than Cuba or Iran MORE. Late Wednesday afternoon, he had an edge of almost 6 points in the RealClearPolitics polling average in the Hawkeye State. That might mean Trump feels he has more to gain from avoiding the debate than participating in it.

That said, Trump’s non-appearance will also invite his rivals, including Cruz, to portray him as soft and whiny — charges that could do serious damage to the front-runner’s core appeal as a confident, devil-may-care figure. 

The Texas senator used an appearance on “The Mark Levin Show” Tuesday to challenge Trump to a one-on-one debate. He also goaded him by suggesting “Donald is afraid of Megyn Kelly,” the Fox News anchor with whom the front-runner has feuded since the first GOP debate, in August. 

On Wednesday, Trump shot back with a tweet asserting he had beaten Cruz in all the debates so far but also asking, “Can we do it in Canada?” — a taunting reference to Cruz’s birth north of the border, which Trump has suggested could provoke legal challenges to his eligibility for the White House.

It’s possible Trump will change his mind and show up, though the odds seem low now that he has announced specific alternative plans.

Here are several other themes to watch when the debate gets underway at 9 p.m. EST.

Trump’s counter-programming

Trump’s core strength is media manipulation. His capacity to grab the headlines and suck up airtime at the expense of his rivals is unsurpassed. 

On Thursday, he plans to host an event in Iowa that will, in the words of a campaign statement, “raise money for the Veterans and Wounded Warriors who have been treated so horribly by our all talk, no action politicians.” That event will take place at Drake University in Des Moines and it is scheduled to begin at the same time as the debate.

Trump being Trump, expect some fiery rhetoric and probably a surprise or two.

Does Cruz become a target?

The Texas senator will find himself at center stage for the first time Thursday evening. It could be an advantage for a candidate with serious debate chops who will savor the symbolism of looking like the race’s dominant figure.

But the same dynamic could also make Cruz the primary target of attacks from his rivals.

He may well be able to parry most of those jabs. But it would only need one big punch to land in order to do Cruz damage. And he can’t really afford that with his poll numbers slipping from their peak at the beginning of the year.

Can Rubio seize a moment?

Rubio has been sidelined by the Trump-Cruz fireworks, not only during the current furor but also in the most recent GOP debate earlier this month in South Carolina.

Rubio has tangled with Cruz in past debates, and he can be expected to do so again on Thursday. But concerns have been building among establishment Republicans that the Florida senator hasn’t yet been able to definitively break out. Most polls have him trailing well behind Trump and Cruz, not snapping at their heels. 

His campaign has been talking up the idea that he has momentum in these closing days in Iowa, and a good debate performance could help his cause enormously.

The question for all, including Fox: Ignore Trump or blast him?

Trump’s rivals need to decide whether they want to try to bring him down, or instead maximize the opportunity to talk about their own agendas in his absence.

The Fox News moderators face a broadly similar choice: to carry on regardless or to take a shot or two at Trump. Megyn Kelly has taken a reserved tone so far.

“I neither like nor dislike him,” she told “Extra.” But she also noted, “It would probably be a bad decision to not show up at the Fox News debate.”