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GOP rivals prepare for a Trump-less debate

What do you do in a debate that’s missing the front-runner?

DES MOINES, Iowa -- What do you do in a debate that’s missing the front-runner? That’s the question Republican candidates will have to work out for Thursday’s nationally televised event, assuming Donald Trump makes good on his pledge to abandon it over a feud with Fox News – specifically the network’s top female anchor, Megyn Kelly.

Do they attack Trump in absentia, or does that look weak? Do they focus on tearing each other down, already the default tactic for most? Is it possible to hurt Trump with his decision to sit it out, or do they risk falling into a rabbit hole chasing after one of Trump’s gold-plated shiny objects?

The Fox-Trump feud began at the first GOP debate in Cleveland in August, when Kelly, one of the event’s moderators, grilled Trump about denigrating comments he’d made about women in the past. Trump warned he would skip Thursday’s debate unless Kelly was replaced as a moderator; when Fox refused to give in to his demands, the candidate walked.

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Bradley Blakeman, a former senior adviser to George W. Bush, said Trump “overplayed his hand” and candidates should be prepared to address the issue onstage Thursday.

“It would be wise for all to come prepared with a one-liner zinger to joke about Trump’s non-appearance,” Blakeman said. “They need to make light of it.”

At the same time, he suggested they save most of the criticism for interviews rather than the main stage, where they’ll have a chance to use the extra time freed up by Trump’s absence to deliver their core message to a large audience.

According to Stuart Stevens, a top adviser to Mitt Romney’s 2012 campaign, Trump’s absence will look “disrespectful for Iowa and New Hampshire voters who are trying to get a good look at the candidate.”

His recommended angle for other candidates taking on Trump: “Why vote for a man too frightened to show up for a fight?”

So far, Trump’s rivals have mostly followed through on that approach, portraying the billionaire real estate mogul as a coward unwilling to face tough questions.  

“I’d like to hear Donald explain to the American people and to the people of Iowa how he is prepared to be commander-in-chief if he’s terrified by a television host,” Sen. Ted Cruz, his closest Iowa rival, said in an appearance on Mark Levin’s radio show Wednesday.

Cruz challenged the front-runner to a one-on-one debate instead. “Can we do it in Canada?” Trump responded on Twitter Wednesday.

Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie used a similar angle. Bush tweeted Red State editor Erick Erickson questioning whether Trump could stand up to Hillary Clinton if he skipped the debate, while Christie called Trump “thin-skinned.”

But Sen. Marco Rubio took a different approach and instead tried to portray the debate issue as a needless squabble between the field’s two leading contenders.

"These kinds theatrics by Ted Cruz and Donald Trump are an entertaining sideshow, but they have nothing to do with defeating Hillary Clinton,” Rubio said in a statement. “I’m going to stay focused on uniting the Republican Party so we can defeat Hillary Clinton and turn the page on eight years of liberal failure. We don’t have time for these kinds of distractions."

There’s also the possibility Trump, whether he planned his debate departure or was forced into it by Fox’s combative statements, has already won the fight. He’s leading Iowa polls already and managed to refocused the entire conversation on a substance-free process story with him as the main character, effectively robbing the rest of the field of media attention right as the campaign reaches a fever pitch.

Radio host Rush Limbaugh, who has praised both Trump and Cruz in recent weeks, suggested Wednesday that skipping a debate would normally hurt a candidate. Trump’s unconventional profile and legitimate conflicts with Fox News, Linbaugh argued, would insulate him from any fallout. 

“Trump is so far outside this game,” Limabugh said on his show. “He is so far outside the rules. He has never been a player in this game. He’s always been an outsider.”

Whatever event Trump stages Thursday (he’s teased a possible fundraiser for wounded veterans) will surely get plenty of headlines alongside debate coverage the next day.

“If Trump skips the debate, his absence will probably dominate the coverage and conversation more than his actual presence.” Dan Pfeiffer, a former senior adviser to President Obama, tweeted.

Trump has issued similar threats before multiple debates before ultimately attending. But this time he looks committed to the snub. Trump's campaign announced a "special event to benefit veterans" scheduled for 9 p.m. ET Thursday, the same time the debate kicks off. Trump is also reportedly still set to appear on Fox News on Wednesday for an interview with Bill O’Reilly.