Fox News Republican debate: Four things to keep your eye on

Somewhere in Des Moines, a set designer is working overtime.

Prior to Donald Trump’s decision to skip Thursday’s Fox News GOP presidential debate, the format was self-evident: in one steel cage, Trump and Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, rasslin’ for first place in Monday’s Iowa caucuses; in a second cage, the four “establishment” Republicans vying for a second-place finish in New Hampshire’s primary.

Trump’s change of heart changes that. And by putting his personal animus ahead of the democratic process, the billionaire developer who made an extra career out of firing television “apprentices” is playing with political fire.

For two reasons – the first being the uncertainty of the Iowa electorate.

Four year ago, exit polls in Iowa showed 46 percent of GOP caucus-goers not making up their minds until the week before the vote. One-third of them sided with Rick Santorum, resulting in a 34-vote loss for Mitt Romney (although we didn’t really know that for six weeks), the frontrunner going into the weekend before that year’s vote. If the current Iowa polls are to believed and Trump has regained the lead over Cruz, why mess with that momentum?

Second, what Fox News has in store is historic: it’s the first time that a debate will loom over the caucuses.

In 2012, the GOP field last debated in the Hawkeye State 19 days before the caucuses. This time, it’s only four days. In a state that take its politics seriously, a sliver of caucus-goers may decide that playing mind games with a new anchor isn’t the stuff of serious statesmanship – not an avalanche of voters, mind you, but enough to put Cruz narrowly over the top.

As for the debate itself, four observations:

1. What now for Cruz? Minus Trump, Cruz is without his main sparring partner these past few weeks. The good news America perhaps gets a reprieve from the citizenship controversy. The Texas senator won’t receive a free pass, however. Expect the moderators to push Cruz on, say, his ties to Goldman Sachs and his opposition to the federal ethanol subsidy (aka, “King Corn”), which sent Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad fleeing in Trump’s direction.

Someone who could fill Trump’s shoes as a Cruz antagonist: Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul. The two had a falling-out last fall (Cruz cherry-picking Paul’s libertarian base; Paul calling Cruz a flip-flopper on immigration).

Four years ago, Rand Paul, the senator’s father, finished a solid third in the caucuses. This likely is the son’s last chance to have an impact on the race.   

2. Winter Storm Jeb. While the media have obsessed over the Cruz-Trump feud, the other defining aspect of the GOP race is Jeb Bush’s relentless aerial assault on Marco Rubio – since December, nine of every 10 dollars in Bush super PAC attack ads directed at his fellow Floridian.

The ads haven’t done much for Bush’s sagging poll numbers (4 percent in Iowa and 7 percent in New Hampshire, per the most recent Fox News Poll), but they have stalled Rubio’s progress.

The Bush spots have vacillated from policy to petty (mocking Rubio’s choice in footwear; his use of credit cards). Does Jeb continue with the attacks in person? If so, is this the night when Rubio decides he’s had enough (the Rubio camp might ask: where’s Trump when you need him?)?

3. The New Hampshirites. The other winter storm – Jonas – was a bad break for Chris Christie, as it took him away from the Granite State to tend to affairs back in New Jersey.

Which means the luckiest man in the GOP field may be John Kasich. As Trump and Cruz trade insults and Bush unloads on Rubio, the Ohio governor continues to forge his wage across New Hampshire – under the radar and off the attack-ad grid.

On Tuesday, Kasich landed The Concord Monitor’s and Boston Globe’s endorsements (lest you think this seals the deal in New Hampshire primary, the same papers endorsed Jon Huntsman in 2012).

At 2 percent in the Fox News Poll of GOP caucus-goers, Kasich is a non-entity in Iowa. But in New Hampshire, he sits in fourth place, just five points behind the second-place Cruz. If I were Cruz, I’d talk up Dr. Ben Carson in this debate – that’s assuming a third-place finish in Iowa by Carson seriously wounds Rubio moving forward to New Hampshire.

4. Where’s The Donald? So what does Trump do with those two hours of free time? Instead of taking part in the debate, the candidate will host an event for wounded veterans – at Drake University in Des Moines. You’ll recall that he played a similar card back in September, when he threatened to drop out of CNN’s GOP presidential debate unless the broadcast’s profits went to various veterans’ groups.

To his credit, Trump has talked about the plight of the Veterans Administration on the campaign trail. However, a cynic will note that a party’s frontrunner surrounding oneself with veterans, at the same time he’s trying to stick it to a news network by ducking a debate, could easily be interpreted as exploitation.

Not that a politician would ever do such a thing…