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GOP Presidential Candidates To Hold Final Debate Before Iowa Caucuses


Donald Trump is not the first presidential front-runner to skip the final debate before the Iowa caucuses, but it hasn't happened in a long time. We'll get to that history in a moment. But first, that debate hosted by Fox News tonight in Des Moines. It will have seven Republicans on the main stage. Trump will be across town holding a charity event for military veterans. And with us now, NPR political reporters Don Gonyea and Sarah McCammon, both of them in Iowa. First, hey there, Don.


CORNISH: And, Sarah, how are you?

SARAH MCCAMMON, BYLINE: Hi, Audie, how are you?

CORNISH: Now, Don, I'm going to have you start, but could you both tell me where you are right this moment?

GONYEA: I'm on the campus of Drake University. I'm outside the Sheslow Auditorium. And it is a place - a venue that's more known for classical music recitals for people who live around here. But tonight, it's the scene of the latest very unconventional moment in the Donald J. Trump campaign for president, this event to benefit veterans' organizations. Also an event to kind of poke a stick in the eye of Fox News on the Republican establishment, fair to say.

MCCAMMON: And I'm at the Iowa Events Center in downtown Des Moines. And as I walked in, Audie, there was a pork tradeshow going in hosted by the Iowa Pork Congress. So you know you're in Iowa when there's a pork show adjacent to a presidential debate.

CORNISH: Sarah, we're in the final days of what's been a very long campaign season in Iowa. What's at stake tonight?

MCCAMMON: Well, these candidates are really trying to close the deal at this point with Iowa voters. They are out on the campaign trail, most of them this week, making lots of stops and making those closing arguments. It's the last chance tonight, though, to draw those contrasts with each other on the same stage, on the big stage, and persuade voters that they have what it takes and they're the ones that they should caucus for.

CORNISH: Don, thinking about this debate tonight, it was Ronald Reagan who was the last major presidential candidate to skip the final Republican debate in Iowa. Now, candidates are usually eager to get the media attention, right? I mean, what is Donald Trump up to with this boycott?

GONYEA: Right, and just a quick word on Ronald Reagan. It did not work out all that well for him in Iowa, at least. He lost the Iowa caucuses to George H. W. Bush, whom he would later pick to be his running mate. Of course, he won the presidency. But, look, Donald Trump is a very different kind of beast when it comes to a presidential candidate. His calculation is that he will get as much attention here as he would on that debate stage. He won't have anybody taking shots at him in person here. And as I look to my right down the street, I count one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight satellite trucks. So that's also part of the reason that he is doing it. But ultimately, his entire campaign has been about challenging the establishment and institutions, be that mainstream presidential candidates or the Republican Party at large or, in this case, also Fox News, which is certainly an institution in American politics, especially on the Republican side.

CORNISH: So that's Trump. Sarah, what does it mean for the other candidates to have a debate without him?

MCCAMMON: Well, it means everybody has more time and more opportunity to stand out. And that is what, you know, every candidate has been fighting for. Often, Trump does suck up all the oxygen in the room or a lot of it. And expect them to take some jabs at Trump for not showing up. I spoke to Ted Cruz's state director at his headquarters near Des Moines today and he said he expects everyone to go after Trump. Certainly, Ted Cruz is his sort of chief rival according to the polls here in Iowa. But that also means without Trump on the stage, the other candidates will be directing their fire likely at Ted Cruz.

CORNISH: And, Don, just a few seconds left, I heard some of the undercard debate candidates are going to be joining Trump after?

GONYEA: Mike Huckabee and Rick Santorum should have time to get over here after that undercard debate. Here's their motivation - they would love to do anything possible to distract from what's happening on that main stage, that main stage that they were not invited to join.

CORNISH: That's NPR political reporters Don Gonyea and Sarah McCammon in Des Moines. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

You're most likely to find NPR's Don Gonyea on the road, in some battleground state looking for voters to sit with him at the local lunch spot, the VFW or union hall, at a campaign rally, or at their kitchen tables to tell him what's on their minds. Through countless such conversations over the course of the year, he gets a ground-level view of American elections. Gonyea is NPR's National Political Correspondent, a position he has held since 2010. His reports can be heard on all NPR News programs and at NPR.org. To hear his sound-rich stories is akin to riding in the passenger seat of his rental car, traveling through Iowa or South Carolina or Michigan or wherever, right along with him.
Sarah McCammon
Sarah McCammon is a National Correspondent covering the Mid-Atlantic and Southeast for NPR. Her work focuses on political, social and cultural divides in America, including abortion and reproductive rights, and the intersections of politics and religion. She's also a frequent guest host for NPR news magazines, podcasts and special coverage.