Why Trump's debate-defying decision is probably brilliant

Donald Trump won't be on the Republican presidential debate stage Thursday night. But he's already stolen the show.

(AP Photo/John Minchillo, File)
Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump, left, and Fox News Channel host and moderator Megyn Kelly during the first Republican presidential debate at the Quicken Loans Arena, in Cleveland. Trump says he won't participate in the last GOP debate before Iowa.

He's done it again. Donald Trump won't even be on the debate stage Thursday night, but he's already stolen the show.

His 11th hour feud with Fox News and his decision to skip the final debate before the Iowa caucuses reveals the billionaire businessman at his best: trash-talking the establishment, hijacking the news cycle, and dominating the conversation in the final days before the Iowa vote.

"Show up or not, @realDonaldTrump is right where he likes to be: in the center of attention," tweeted former Obama strategist David Axelrod. 

While the decision is a gamble, it's another example of the convention-flouting moves that have come to define Mr. Trump's campaign, one that has turned the primary race on end, and seems to defy political gravity at every turn.

"It's the most brilliant stroke by any candidate in either party in the entire campaign thus far," says Jim Broussard, professor of history at Lebanon Valley College in Annville, Penn.

Given that much of the Republican electorate is skeptical of party establishment and the media, Trump's supporters will likely relish his decision to thumb his nose at Fox News and the Republican National Committee.

It demonstrates that he's an outsider willing to take on the party's leadership and the media, who doesn't have to play by the same rules as conventional politicians, something Trump himself recognizes.

"With me, they're dealing with somebody that's a little bit different," Trump said. "They can't toy with me like they toy with everybody else."

"This takes guts, and is the kind mentality our country needs in order to Make America Great Again," Trump's campaign said in a statement.

The Republican frontrunner's decision to host an event at the same time to raise money for wounded veterans is another smart move, says Prof. Broussard.

"It's a perfect contrast between public-spirited Trump, doing something to help veterans, versus the self-seeking politicians crowding the debate stage, desperate for attention, who look like petty dwarves in the shadow of the good-hearted giant who puts politics aside to raise funds for charity," he says.

The decision to skip the debate is unlikely to dent Trump's ratings - with Republican support for him topping 40 percent, it's a risk he can take – but will it hurt Fox's audience ratings?

Trump certainly seems to think so.

"[L]et them have their debate, and let’s see how they do with the ratings," he said, taunting the conservative news network during the tangle. "Let’s see how much money Fox is going to make on the debate without me."

Since August, viewers have tuned in to the Republican debates in unprecedented numbers, largely because of Trump, and his absence could strip the telecast of its appeal for many viewers.

Fox News averaged 24 million viewers for the August debate, the highest rated primary debate in TV history. By contrast, the first GOP primary debate four years ago, also on Fox, attracted 3.2 million viewers.

"I expect if [Trump] isn’t on stage, the numbers will drop substantially at least back to the normal numbers in previous elections and that would be a significant regression from the ones this year," Broussard says, adding that Trump's wounded veteran fundraiser may even eclipse the debate. "In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if the ratings for his event, assuming it is televised somewhere, outdo the debate. I would be shocked if some network doesn’t cover that event."

Still, the move is a gamble for Trump and it could backfire. 

It could come across as peevish.

“It’s appalling to think of the hubris of Donald Trump,” Rep. Steve King (R) of Iowa told CNN. “It’s time to be adults about this. Can you imagine a commander-in-chief, a president of the United States, throwing tantrums like this for four or eight years?”

It's been painted by some as cowardly.

“So Donald Trump can’t handle tough questions from Megyn Kelly, but he’ll be able to handle Hillary Clinton. Hahahahahahahahahahahahahahahaha," tweeted conservative writer Erick Erickson.

Most damaging, it may provide an opening for Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, currently Trump's biggest rival.

Sen. Cruz challenged Trump to a one-on-one debate and launched a mini-campaign branding Trump as “Ducking Donald.”

Without Trump on the debate stage, Cruz would shift to center-stage in Thursday’s debate, both literally and figuratively, and the remaining candidates would have a chance to steal back some airtime, and possibly, to gang up on Trump without fear of a crushing comeback.

Nonetheless, skipping the debate is a gamble Trump and his campaign appear to think will pay off.

As Trump's campaign manager, Corey Lewandowski, told MSNBC, "At the end of the day, Mr. Trump is going to have the last laugh."

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