DES MOINES, Iowa — Donald Trump won’t be onstage when Republican presidential candidates make their final appeals to Iowa voters in Thursday night’s debate, and that gives the rest of the field a rare opportunity to frame the election in their own terms, at least for one night.
Trump is boycotting the debate in a dispute with host Fox News. Instead, he is holding a competing rally a few miles away that is likely to draw significant attention — as well as the participation of some lower-polling candidates hoping to draft off the front-runner’s success.
Even with Trump’s shadow hanging over the debate, his closest competitors are eager for an opportunity to break through in his absence. They also hope his boycott will be viewed negatively by voters in Iowa, which kicks off voting in the 2016 presidential race next Monday.
“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.
Florida Sen. Marco Rubio said Republicans “don’t have time for these kinds of distractions.”
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 favourite of the conservatives and evangelical Christians who hold significant sway in the state’s Republican caucuses.
Some campaigns were preparing for the possibility Trump could reverse course and take the stage in Des Moines after all. However, he moved forward with plans to host a rally a few miles away that his campaign said would raise money for wounded warriors.
On Thursday, he announced the launch of a new website for collecting donations to veterans ahead of the event. The link, which he posted on Twitter, includes the seal of the Donald J. Trump Foundation, and a form for contributions.
Mike Huckabee and Rick Santorum, Iowa caucus winners in the past who have struggled to gain traction in the 2016 campaign, planned to join Trump at the event after appearing in an earlier undercard debate. They were relegated to that secondary contest because of low poll numbers.
With Fox carrying the main debate, other cable channels were likely to show Trump’s event, stealing away at least some viewers who would have otherwise watched the contest.
“I think it’s typical Trump,” said Don Kass, chairman of Iowa’s Plymouth County GOP. “He’s betting on him making a bigger splash.”
While earlier debates have been instrumental in the rise and fall of several GOP 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, and has sometimes played a less forceful role in the debates.
Trump’s absence was likely to turn attention to Cruz, a firebrand conservative disdained by many in his party, and Rubio, who is hoping a third-place finish in Iowa could help him establish him as the choice of more traditional Republicans.
Others on the debate stage will have their eyes on New Hampshire, where they’re hoping a strong showing in the Feb. 9 primary will jumpstart 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 in the last debate.
Iowa’s fast food workers, meanwhile, hoped to draw at least 1,000 low-wage workers to rally for change outside Thursday’s debate venue.
Trump’s Fox feud dates back to the first Republican primary debate, when moderator Megyn Kelly took the billionaire business mogul to task over derogatory statements he’d made toward women. Trump had threatened to boycott Thursday’s debate if Fox stuck with plans for Kelly to moderate again but later said it was a sarcastic statement from the network that was the final straw.
That statement said the leaders of Iran and Russia “both intend to treat Donald Trump unfairly when they meet with him if he becomes president” and that “Trump has his own secret plan to replace the Cabinet with his Twitter followers to see if he should even go to those meetings.”