DES MOINES, Iowa – A dozen Republican presidential candidates will make final pitches to Iowa voters Thursday on a national stage.
Well, make that two stages.
While 11 candidates will take the stage at the Fox News' debate here – during an undercard and a primetime debate --- front-runner Donald Trump will hold his own rally in protest of what he says was unfair treatment by Fox News executives, and moderator Megyn Kelly during the first debate six months ago.
It’s the perfect twist in the already unpredictable and riveting election. Is Trump still a winner when he refuses to play ball with the rest of the GOP? Can the rest of the party successfully debate a front-runner who refused to show up? After months of GOP frustration at a leading candidate who derides and mocks literally everyone and everything else, the simmering feud between the party and its unlikely front-runner will be laid bare by a pair of dueling events.
Trump promises an "special event" Thursday evening to benefit veterans, though major veterans groups say they haven’t been contacted yet, and the campaign has offered few details about how the free event will support veterans. He’s likely to attract die-hard Trump supporters, creating an echo chamber in which he’s the only winner in town.
At the debate across town the race will still be up for grabs. The night is the candidates' big chance to make an impression on Iowans just four days before voters head out to caucus. The state’s caucuses can knight – or derail – social conservatives, so for candidates like Ted Cruz and Dr. Ben Carson, Thursday's performance could be a make-or-break moment.
But in the final days before the caucuses, many voters told MSNBC they’re still undecided.
Mick Trier, a financial manager for a car dealership, said he was leaning toward caucusing for Sen. Marco Rubio, while his son and wife were leaning toward Cruz; they'd attended rallies for both this week to help make up their minds.
“We’ll watch the debate,” Trier said later by phone, adding that he wasn't pleased to see Trump skip the Des Moines debate. “There’s always that chance that that one thing will happen and change your mind, and I think that’s what Trump’s trying to prevent, he’s trying to sneak out without that happening.”
But for the final hours before the events begin, however, the city’s political hustle and bustle is largely hushed.
After a frenzied few days when campaigns and media hordes crisscrossed the state as the candidates made their final pitches to the state’s voters, the campaign trail is quieter Thursday. Just two candidates – Rick Santorum and Carly Fiorina – have multi-city campaign schedules, while the media and candidates prepare for yet another intense evening.