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Time to strike: Candidates see opportunity in Trump-less debate

Republican presidential candidate Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., speaks during a campaign event, Sunday, Jan. 24, 2016, in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. (AP Photo/Mary Altaffer)
Republican presidential candidate Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., speaks during a campaign event, Sunday, Jan. 24, 2016, in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. (AP Photo/Mary Altaffer)
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When GOP candidates step onto the debate stage Thursday evening, someone will be missing.

Having decided to skip the debate and hold his own event, Donald Trump will not be in attendance, a development that has already caused a media frenzy.

"He's a master at making the story about him and certainly succeeding at the moment," explained Frederick Mayer, Associate Dean for Strategy and Innovation and Professor of Public Policy, Political Science and Environment at Duke University.

Trump's decision has sparked near-constant speculation over how it could impact his campaign but one outcome is perfectly clear: his competitors are not going to miss him on the debate stage.

Speaking with CNN, Dr. Ben Carson downplayed the influence of Trump's decision, noting that "it's not really about me or Donald Trump or Ted Cruz or any of the candidates it's about the American people."

"It's about our ability to talk to them about the critical issues, you know our country is on the precipice right now and unless we address the real issues and get away from all this peripheral show business, we're not going to make it."

Senator Rand Paul told Fox News that with Trump absent "I think we'll actually have the best debate we've had."

"It's sort of a double-win for me, " Paul stated. Paul, who declined to participate in the last debate due to being relegated to the under card, managed to qualify for the main stage on Thursday. Beyond that victory, he noted, "we don't have to put up with a lot of empty blather and boastfulness and calling people names."

"This is a chance to really have a substantive debate on the issues," Paul said.

Asked if Trump's absence would give the remaining candidates a greater chance to delve into the issues, Mayer responded: "it's hard to imagine that his presence there would have made [the debate] more substantive."

"In his absence there's that potential," Mayer said noting that, "Trump thrives on painting with the broadest of brushes."

Without Trump, Mayer said "there's more air time for people to get into a bit more detail."

"The simplest opportunity is that they'll at least have more time to talk," explained Kevin Wagner, associate professor and director of graduate studies at Florida Atlantic University.

With one less candidate the remaining seven get more precious time to share their positions and make their presence known.

"One less gives each more of an opportunity to stand out and say something people might remember," Wagner explained.

In a campaign where candidates have been using social media and elaborate video stunts to try and appeal to voters, the debate provides a golden opportunity.

"Since we haven't had a debate without him it'll really allow others to emerge," Aaron Kall, Director of Debate at University of Michigan explained.

Kall noted that during the debate the candidates will have the chance for some voters to learn about who they are.

"That could really make a difference among some of the undecided voters," Kall said.

This is especially important given that we are less than a week away from the all-important Iowa caucus.

"Studies show that a good number of voters make their decisions relatively late," Wagner said.

"Having the last say, defining the important issues, being the last voice in front of a voter can be important especially since [the Iowa Caucus] is very close."

"People in Iowa will certainly be watching," Kall said. Even if the number of National viewers sinks, as Trump has predicted it will.

Trump has long-touted how his presence is the reason debates this cycle have experienced such large viewership.

Generally, Wagner described many have speculated that the "spike in interest," in the primary debates, "has been driven to some degree by Donald trump's popularity."

Thursday night, Wagner suggested, is "an interesting test of that notion."

"If that's true, the numbers should drop sharply."

One demographic Kall said would continue to watch is those undecided voters still making up their minds.

"Trump not being able to be there on stage for his closing argument before their vote," could be a detriment to his campaign, Kall said.

Kall noted that many of the campaigns competing against Trump were probably happy with the decision, "because everything pointed to Trump until last night."

"Everything was looking like it was trending towards Trump in Iowa, such a major decision so close to voting can only upset the dynamic."

Kall questioned whether the other candidates would use some of their time on Thursday night to launch attacks at Trump for skipping the debate. Trump's absence, Kall noted, "means that he can't counter-attack them."

Noting that Bush, Kasich and Cruz have all "felt the wrath," of Trump's attacks after trying to go after the front-runner, Kall described Trump has, "proven the best counter-puncher of all the candidates."

Kall pointed to the under card debates as an example of how attacking without being attacked can help candidates. When Carly Fiorina attacked Trump during the under card debate in Cleveland and Chris Christie did the same during the debate in Milwaukee, both times their attacks were well received, Kall explained.

The key, Kall said "is if even in his absence, does Trump still remain the focus of the debate?"

Mayer described the candidate's choice over whether or not to attack Trump as, "a double-edged sword."

"On the one hand they want to take down the front-runner," on the other, Mayer said they're likely eager not to talk about him.

"That's the trade-off for them," Mayer said describing that you could see a scenario in which the candidates reference Trump but not directly by name.

Also referencing Trump's front-runner status Kall hypothesized that Trump would likely come up.

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"Even if he's not on stage he's still the front-runner, they still have to seek to hurt his poll numbers in order for them to reach their goals."

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