The final Republican debate before the Iowa caucuses will be held Thursday night in Des Moines. Like previous debates, it will feature a prime time event at 9 p.m., preceded by an undercard debate with lower-polling candidates at 7 p.m. But unlike every other debate so far, frontrunner Donald Trump will not participate.
The debate is airing on Fox News, and the main event will be moderated by Megyn Kelly, Bret Baier, and Chris Wallace, the same trio who moderated the first GOP debate back in August.
Here’s what you should look for tonight:
1. No Donald, Mo’ Problems?
Current poll leader Donald Trump won’t be at the event. He’s sitting it out because of what he thought were unfair questions from Kelly during the August event. The question now, though, is how everyone will respond to his absence. He’s still leading in New Hampshire and is neck and neck with Ted Cruz in Iowa, so do candidates need to attack him? Will they try to ignore him and hope voters do to? And what about Kelly—will the anchor address the fact that Trump bowed out or take the high road?
2. Rand is back
During the last debate, Rand Paul was the boycotting candidate. He reused to attend after being demoted to the undercard, but this time he’s back at the adult table. Paul is probably the candidate who can draw the most distinctions from the rest of the field, especially on issues of foreign policy. For him, this debate could be his last chance to find a way to remain relevant.
3. Does Cruz attack?
Ted Cruz has emerged as the biggest challenger to Trump, especially in Iowa. But without his foil there, does Cruz bother attacking candidates running farther behind, like Marco Rubio and Jeb Bush? Or does he focus on the positive things about himself, particularly his strongly socially conservative values that could endear him to evangelical voters in Iowa? This is probably the biggest debate of the season for Cruz, because if he doesn’t keep up with Trump in Iowa he faces an even tougher challenge in New Hampshire.
4. Jeb’s last stand
Poor Jeb. Once the clear favorite, Bush has seen the establishment shift its support to Rubio. He’s struggled to articulate his message in debates, and he’s become Donald Trump’s favorite rhetorical punching bag. With so much still up in the air, can Bush salvage his support and ride to victory as the safe choice? Probably not, but if he’s going to, it starts tonight.
5. The circus is in town
This debate has all the makings of a goat rodeo. Trump’s not there, but he will be on everyone’s mind. Or maybe he will show up as a surprise. Fox News is hosting along with Google, so there will be comments from the Youtube community. Every candidate is going to be doing whatever it takes to get support, so the attacks will likely be frequent and vicious. Recent debates had gotten boring, with the rhetoric and the fights going stale. Don’t expect that tonight.