Donald Trump has figured out how to make the buzz around a Thursday night debate of Republican presidential candidates all about him: by vowing to skip it.
But the billionaire’s move, days before Iowa holds the first nominating contest of the 2016 election, is a gamble.
After Mr. Trump said he was boycotting the Fox News-sponsored debate because of his feud with anchor Megyn Kelly, rivals accused him of being too afraid to face them on stage. While some of Mr. Trump’s fans were supportive of his decision, several undecided voters said they were unimpressed.
“I was on Trump’s doorstep until this whole thing happened. I was disappointed,” said Bryan Moon of West Des Moines, Iowa, who was attending an event for Republican Marco Rubio. “If this is how he’s going to act, that ‘I’m taking my ball and going home,’ then that is just not going to work.”
Voter Jill Ruby, another West Des Moines resident at the Rubio event, was equally put out by Mr. Trump’s decision. “Are you kidding me, a reporter ticked him off?” she said. “He’s a coward. I think it will come back and bite him. That’s not how a president acts, you don’t just run away.”
Although Mr. Trump leads polls of Iowa Republicans over U.S. Senator Ted Cruz of Texas, many voters remain undecided and are looking to the debate to aid their decision-making.
“It gives people a reason to be disappointed in him and take a look at the other candidates,” said Republican strategist Charlie Black. “It could hurt him with people who might be undecided.”
Mr. Trump’s rivals view the debate, which begins at 9 p.m. EST (0200 GMT), as a chance to get their own messages across without having to compete with Mr. Trump’s bomb-throwing rhetoric.
“It gives us more time at the microphone and more time to talk about answers to substantive issues that Iowa voters are demanding right now,” said David Kochel, a senior adviser to Republican candidate Jeb Bush.
On the down side, the number of people who tune in could be lower without Mr. Trump at centre stage.
“It is undeniable that what he’s doing is denying his opponents a large audience as they make their final arguments to Iowa voters,” said Eric Fehrnstrom, a Republican strategist who advised 2012 nominee Mitt Romney.
Mr. Trump’s decision to stage a benefit event to help U.S. military veterans instead of participating in the debate was a welcome move for some supporters.
Pat Wiltfang (59), of Grinnell, Iowa, said she is pleased Mr. Trump decided to pull out. A lifelong Republican, Ms. Wiltfang said she watched all the previous debates but will gladly skip this one.
“That’s a great move,” said Ms. Wiltfang, who plans to caucus for Mr. Trump. “All it is just everyone trying to attack.”
While it might be tempting for Mr. Trump’s rivals to use the debate to criticize him aggressively, some Republican analysts are cautioning against a scorched-earth approach.
“It’s delicate for the candidates because you have to pull back from attacking a man who is not there,” said Ari Fleischer, who was White House press secretary for President George W. Bush. “It will be okay to make a passing reference or two, the fact that he’s not there. But if you try to beat him up, it won’t play well because he’s not there to defend himself.”
But on Wednesday, at a separate event in West Des Moines, Mr. Cruz openly mocked Mr. Trump for skipping the debate, calling him a “fragile soul.” He renewed his offer to Mr. Trump to debate him one-on-one Saturday evening in Iowa.
“It’s not that he’s afraid of me,” Mr. Cruz said to the crowd. “He’s afraid of you. He doesn’t want to answer questions from the men and women of Iowa about how his record doesn’t match what he’s selling.”
No one would be shocked if Mr. Trump suddenly decided to participate in the debate.
“I’ve got a $20 bet he’ll show up,” Mr. Trump rival Jeb Bush said. Why? “Because it’s in his interests,” Mr. Bush said.