It’s easy to get carried away about televised political debates. But tonight’s Fox News/Google Republican Party showdown really could be a significant moment in American history. By ducking the debate, and picking a fight with Fox, Donald Trump appears ingeniously to have sucked all the media oxygen out of the event. All the headlines continue to be about Trump, and Fox can expect a ratings drop. The elephant in the room will be the elephant not in the room.
Still, with less than four days to go until the opening Iowa caucuses, Trump's absence presents a major opportunity for Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio, the second and third-placed candidates in the polls. Without Trump dominating proceedings from centre stage, both men are bound to have chances to grab the limelight.
Cruz must know that tonight could make or sink his campaign. In Iowa, he and Trump are neck and neck. Trump’s slight advantage in the polls is offset by the superiority of Cruz’s 'ground game’. If Cruz can score points against the invisible Trump and impress enough Iowans to make the difference in Monday’s vote, he could effectively knock the other candidates out of the running. He could begin to define the rest of the race as a contest between himself, as counter-establishment authentic conservative, and Trump, the media charlatan with no principles with whom the corrupt elite can do business.
Rubio, meanwhile, looks unlikely to win in Iowa, though his poll numbers are picking up. But if he can be seen to win tonight’s debate, it could give his campaign the ignition it has searching for. So far Marco Rubio has been the Republican star that never shines. He looks like a perfect politician, which is his great handicap. He's been called 'the Republican Obama', but nobody outside his clique of boosters seems to like him. His campaign has been strangely lackadaisical. Almost every debate so far has been hyped by journalists as ‘Marco’s moment’, but each time he fails to deliver. Tonight really could be his last chance. His third place in Iowa looks assured, but polls for the primary in New Hampshire on February 8 show him to be fourth and tanking. A strong performance tonight, or major gaffe from Cruz, could mean he finishes strongly in Iowa and stays within touching distance of Trump and Cruz. That could make him seem the pragmatic choice as the race reaches its probable climax on Super Tuesday, March 1. In this scenario, the other ‘establishment’ campaigns, notably Jeb Bush’s increasingly zombie-like run, would stop their savage attack ads on Rubio, and the Republican elite -- which has so far been oddly reluctant to accept Rubio as their best bet -- would fall in line behind him.
Of course, the debate could turn out to be what Sebastian Payne, lately of this parish, would call a damp squid. But that in itself would be momentous. It would make Trump look unstoppable. His decision to avoid the event will be heralded as a masterful dodge, and he will appear ever more invincible. To stop Trump, Cruz and/or Rubio must hurt him tonight.