MARSHALLTOWN, Iowa — Donald Trump’s presidential campaign has been full of high risk political maneuvers — but his latest one could be his biggest gamble yet.
The Republican front-runner boldly announced Tuesday that he will boycott the last GOP presidential debate before the first contest of the primary cycle — denying Iowans their last opportunity to judge the leading Republican hopefuls side-by-side before the Iowa caucuses and potentially shaking up the dynamics of the presidential race just days before that contest.
But the decision — just the latest in a string of political playbook-defying moves that have come to define his campaign — could also deliver a big payout at the Iowa caucuses for the billionaire whose straight-talking, no-holds-barred candidacy has put him ahead in the polls, including the most recent ones in Iowa.
And a victory in Iowa, as Trump’s chief rival, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, warned Monday, could make Trump “unstoppable.”
“It’s incredibly risky,” said Craig Robinson, a conservative activist and blogger in Iowa. “Does it create doubts about him? Or does it cement the fact that he is someone who beats to his own drum and just kind of dictates the terms of this nomination process?”
Trump has already managed to hijack the news cycle leading up to the debate and could, even in his absence, still loom large over the stage of contenders who will gather Thursday night.
And to try and blunt charges that he is depriving Iowans of a last look at his candidacy, Trump’s campaign said it is planning its own televised event in Iowa the night of the debate, one that will also raise funds for wounded veterans.
Even Rep. Steve King, the conservative congressman barnstorming Iowa in support of Sen. Ted Cruz, said, “there’s some chance” Trump’s bold play could pay off.
“I guess the jury is going to be out on whether it will help,” King told CNN Tuesday night in a phone interview.
But King said he was hopeful that Iowans would see Trump’s move as little more than “a childish tantrum” and ultimately decide not to get onboard with a candidate whose presidency King said would resemble an “unpredictable roller coaster.”
“It’s appalling to think of the hubris of Donald Trump,” King said. “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?”
Trump’s decision, though, could create an opening for his rivals — an opening Cruz quickly seized by proposing he and Trump both ditch the RNC-sanctioned Fox News debate in favor of a head-to-head contest.
“If Donald is afraid of Megyn Kelly I would like to invite him to participate mano-a-mano,” Cruz said in an interview with conservative radio host Mark Levin, who promptly offered to moderate.
Cruz also launched a page on his website branding Trump as “Ducking Donald.” The Trump campaign has yet to respond to Cruz’s invitation.
But if Trump declines, Cruz would shift to center-stage in Thursday’s debate as the highest-polling Republican of the Trump-less field.
That move could cement Cruz’s position as the billionaire businessman’s primary opponent and give the Texas senator a chance to shine. It would also remove the issue of the Texas senator’s eligibility to serve as president, with Trump being the main instigator on that issue.
But the absence could also put a giant target on Cruz’s back.
“Will the other candidates on the stage take it as an opportunity to gang up on Ted Cruz?” King said. “It’s quite a possibility.”
The Trump-free environment will give other candidates looking to make their mark in Iowa a chance to take on Cruz as they swing for a top-three finish in the caucus. Candidates like Sens. Rand Paul of Kentucky and Marco Rubio of Florida might have an easier time making the post-debate highlight reel.
And other candidates in the field will also look to a debate without Trump as an opportunity to steal the spotlight.
“The other candidates don’t have to worry about going after Trump because they won’t get smashed with a comeback,” said Tim Hagle, a political science professor at the University of Iowa.
But the Trump campaign is betting that any opening the billionaire’s rivals hope to grab during the debate will be limited by significantly diminished viewership.
“We’ll be here Thursday night. The media will be all invited and we’ll see how Fox does in its ratings with no Trump on stage. It will go back to one million people watching a debate that nobody cares about,” Trump’s campaign manager Corey Lewandowski told reporters Tuesday night.
The Trump campaign is hoping voters see Trump’s decision as an example of the bold and unforgiving attitude Trump has promised to bring into the Oval Office.
But Doug Gross, an Iowa Republican strategist unaligned with any campaign, said he believes Trump’s decision will hurt his showing in Monday’s caucus.
“It’s the only Republican debate in our state and he’s not even going to show up because he’s afraid of a woman reporter? What kind of a wimp is this,” Gross said, referring to Trump’s gripes about one of the debate’s moderators, Fox News host Megyn Kelly.
“Not showing up is not being bold,” he added. “If you’re going to be president you at least have got to show up.”