Donald Trump has conceded Iowa to Ted Cruz by pulling out of Thursday night’s Fox debate. He’s done this ostensibly because Megyn Kelly is such a horrible person, and he intends to host a fundraiser for the Wounded Warrior Project instead.
Five minutes after Trump announced his decision, Fox was out with a story about how much money the Wounded Warrior Project has wasted on lavish retreats and sky-high compensation packages. In other words, it’s now open trench warfare between Trump and Fox. You never want to start a war of words with a guy who buys ink by the barrel. Likewise, Trump may discover you don’t want to start a war of words with somebody who has more satellites than you.
My initial reaction to Trump’s decision was that it was shrewd. He had taken the air out of Fox’s balloon for the debate, since he has been the featured attraction at every debate so far, and would make Fox look bad by comparison on Thursday night. He’d offer excitement, music, celebrities, fun and noise at the same time Fox was offering, well, words.
But Trump has taken a huge risk here. First of all he is gambling that Iowans will not interpret his little snit as a diss on their entire state. Iowans are quite protective of their status as first in the nation, and Trump is messing with their mojo through his silly little contretemps with a TV personality. A lot of them will be a little bit irked at Trump when they sit down to watch the debate.
This will be the last debate before the votes start counting on Monday, and Iowans want all hands on deck as the primary season kicks into overdrive. Trump has taken the focus off Iowa and put it squarely on himself. The early feedback I’ve gotten from Iowa is that a lot of folks there are not happy with The Donald today.
But Trump is a shrewd dude. I don’t think he would have performed well at the debate - he’s out of fresh ideas, has said everything he has to say (except for formulating new insults), and probably would not have had a good night on Thursday, especially against Cruz who is such a skilled debater.
There, of course, is no way he’ll accept Cruz’s challenge for a mano-a-mano debate. Cruz would run circles around him, and Cruz, by throwing down the gauntlet, has put Trump on the defensive, where he rarely finds himself. In truth, I think Trump is not skipping the debate because he’s afraid of Megyn Kelly. He’s skipping it because he’s afraid of Ted Cruz.
My guess is that Trump will be something of a forgotten man Thursday. There certainly will be some shots taken at him, but the bulk of the fire will be directed at Cruz, which simply enhances his stature as the guy everybody has to beat.
By absenting himself, Trump has virtually ceded Iowa to Cruz. He and Cruz have been running neck and neck in Iowa, and if Cruz wins there, it will dispel the myth of Trump’s invincibility and suddenly put New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina in play.
Trump has clearly been worried that he will lose Iowa to Cruz. That’s why he has ramped up his nasty invective against the senator. They were BFFs until Cruz passed him in the polls, at which point Trump turned their friendship into a duel to the death. Trump now, perhaps craftily, has put himself in a position to blame his loss Monday on Fox and Megyn Kelly. After all, we’ll never know what the outcome would have been had he debated, so his excuse will not be provably wrong. “I really didn’t get beat by Cruz,” he’ll say, “I got cheated out of my prize by those losers and meanies at Fox.”
Meanwhile, Cruz now has the floor to himself on Thursday, with no one there to tell America what a nasty guy he is. He’ll be front and center, occupying center stage, and he can make his final appeal to Iowa voters without any bombastic chaff from Trump. He correctly said on Monday that he is the only one who can block Trump in Iowa, and now he can make a virtually uncontested appeal to conservatives in Iowa to rally to his banner in order to stop the Trump Train.
Diehard fans of Trump, of course, will be unfazed. If he can’t lose their support by shooting somebody on 5th Avenue, it ain’t gonna hurt him if he launches a cat fight with a girl. They will find his little temper tantrum endearing.
However, for the rest of Iowa and the nation, his stunt might come across as petulant and childish. Americans may ask themselves, is this the kind of peevish and juvenile temperament we want at the head of our ship of state? For many, the answer will be no.