The Note: A Debate Without the Donald

VIDEO: Donald Trump Stands By Decision to Skip GOP
WATCH Donald Trump Stands By Decision to Skip GOP Debate


--WHAT TRUMP MAY LOSE BY SKIPPING FOX NEWS DEBATE: Once again, Donald Trump is proving that when it comes to his 2016 campaign playbook, there are no rules. But could Trump’s decision to bow out of the final GOP debate before the Iowa caucuses be his riskiest move yet? For the loyal supporters who have cheered Trump’s brazen style, the candidate’s planned absence from the debate stage tonight will not likely affect their caucus night choice, Matt Strawn, the former chairman of the Iowa Republican Party, said in an interview with ABC’s MERIDITH MCGRAW. “Most Trump supporters are set on supporting him so perhaps it’s not as crucial for him to be on stage. But for Cruz, Rubio, the other candidates, there is no audience that is just as large,” Strawn said. “It’s invaluable to get that kind of exposure.” But Trump risks alienating undecided and first-time caucus goers, according to David Yepsen, a former long-time Des Moines Register political reporter.“I think it’s a mistake and I say that because there are a lot of caucus goers who have not made up their mind,” said Yepsen.

--WHAT TRUMP IS SAYING:  “I don’t like being taken advantage of…I'm not going to let our country be taken advantage of," Trump said in a Fox News interview with Bill O’Reilly last night. "I don’t think it’s really a bad personality trait,” adding that he is not walking away, but rather “was pushed away." Trump said he will not forgive anchor Megyn Kelly, who moderated the debate and has drawn Trump's scorn after she questioned his treatment of women. “It’s called an eye for an eye,” Trump said. “When you are mistreated as we were with the Iran deal, our country should have walked,” Trump said comparing his dealings with Fox to the Obama Administration’s negotiations with Iran.

--WHAT TRUMP PLANS TO DO INSTEAD OF THE DEBATE: Instead of appearing on stage with his presidential competitors, Trump said he will host a "special event to benefit veterans organizations" at Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa. Trump's event is set for 8 p.m. CST -- the same time as the debate. “He will...raise money for the Veterans and Wounded Warriors, who have been treated so horribly by our all talk, no action politicians,” the Trump campaign said in a statement released Tuesday night. ABC’s VERONICA STRACQUALURSI has more on Trump’s plans.

--ANALYSIS -- ABC’s RICK KLEIN: Now that debates over debates have consumed both parties, who wins? Let’s start with who loses: the issues, and any real discussion of them, in the final days before voting starts. On the Republican side, that would seem to benefit the frontrunner, with Donald Trump just starting to see real scrutiny (and ad spending) focusing on his previously held liberal positions. Surprise – it’s Trump vowing not to attend the last debate before Iowa. For the Democrats, Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton have both, somewhat remarkably, run issue-heavy campaigns. But it’s really only Clinton who is looking for a new storyline in the closing days before Iowa, hoping to contrast her record with what she sees as an unrealistic vision being put forth by Sanders. Surprise – it’s Clinton who is suddenly pushing for a final Democratic debate, after months of insisting there were plenty scheduled. (Sanders is now pressing for a slate of four more debates, leveraging Clinton’s short-term imperative to increase the probability of a race that will last well into the spring.) Yet, as these fights consume precious pre-voting hours, how many races can people point to that really turned on how many debates were or weren’t held?


WHAT WE’RE READING -- CRUZ SET TO CAMPAIGN IN ALL 99 IOWA COUNTIES (BUT VOTERS MAY NOT CARE). Eight days before Iowans were set to participate in the first nominating contest for the White House, Rick Santorum, who carried the state’s GOP caucuses last time around, nodded off in a church in central Iowa. The former U.S. senator from Pennsylvania has held a grueling schedule that has taken him to all 99 counties in the Hawkeye State, a feat long seen as an important notch in a candidate’s belt in a state where retail politics and face-to-face meetings are treasured. He did the same four years ago, propelling him to victory here. But hitting every corner of Iowa may no longer prove as crucial in a year when some candidates have traded in a campaign car or bus for a private plane to strategically hit certain towns and cities, ABC’s JOSH HASKELL and BEN GITTLESON report. Ted Cruz is the only candidate at the front of the pack who is still attempting to do it, but it's no longer a campaign requirement. “The more you let people know that you take Iowa seriously, the better chance you have of doing it,” U.S. Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), after whom the statewide accomplishment, the “Full Grassley,” is named, told ABC News. “Visiting all 99 counties is one way of doing it, but it’s not the only way of doing it.” READ MORE:


BY THE NUMBERS -- CLINTON SEEN AS WINNER IN NOVEMBER; A TRUMP PRESIDENCY INSPIRES ANXIETY. Most Americans expect that Hillary Clinton would prevail against her leading GOP opponent in November, while Bernie Sanders’ chances are rated less well. The thought of Donald Trump as president inspires high levels of public anxiety, according to ABC’s CHAD KIEWIET DE JONGE. A new ABC News/Washington Post poll also finds Americans divided about the need for a third party in this country – but not so divided about a potential independent run by Trump, should he fail to win the GOP nomination. Fewer than a quarter say they’d even consider voting for him as an independent candidate for president. With Trump as the GOP nominee vs. Clinton, 54 percent of Americans say they’d expect Clinton to win; among registered voters (a more GOP-leaning group), Clinton has 52 percent support. Clinton’s seen by much wider margins as beating Ted Cruz or Marco Rubio. Sanders, for his part, is seen as beating Cruz or Rubio – but potentially losing to Trump.


TODAY ON THE TRAIL with ABC’s SHUSHANNAH WALSHE: Tonight is the final GOP debate before Monday's Iowa caucuses. Donald Trump is not backing down, standing firm in his feud with Fox News and promising he will not be at tonight's face off. Instead, he is holding a fundraiser for veterans in Des Moines. Tonight will be Rick Santorum, Mike Huckabee, Fiorina, and even Jim Gilmore at tonight's undercard face off at 7pm. On the main stage at 9pm will be Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, Ben Carson, Jeb Bush, Chris Christie, John Kasich, and Rand Paul. Hillary Clinton has three events in Iowa. She starts her day with a New York City fundraiser before traveling to the Hawkeye State. This afternoon she holds an event with "Every Child Matters" in Newton before holding a "get out the caucus event" there. This evening she holds another event trying to get voters to caucus in Keokuk. Sanders has four events where we can expect more jabs about Clinton fitting in high dollar fundraising, as we saw from him last night. Sanders starts his day with a forum at a high school in Des Moines before heading to a volunteer canvass lunch in Ottumwa this afternoon. He then holds a volunteer rally with actress Susan Sarandon before holding another rally this evening in Burlington. Bill Clinton is also in Iowa holding four "get out the caucus” events in Iowa.


FROM THE IOWA CAUCUS BUREAU with ABC’s JOSH HASKELL: When Donald Trump’s helicopter flew over the Iowa State Fair back in August as other candidates like Hillary Clinton and Rick Santorum looked up in the sky, the billionaire businessman was letting everyone know his plans to run a campaign his way. Four days from the Iowa Caucuses and still the frontrunner, that philosophy couldn’t be more accurate as Trump is holding his own campaign event in Des Moines tonight at the same time as the GOP debate he’s skipping. “Let them have their debate and see how they do with the ratings. I told them, give money to the wounded warriors, give money to the veterans,” Trump said in Marshalltown Tuesday night. Even though Donald Trump won’t be at the debate, he’s sure to be a theme and it will be interesting to see whether this latest controversy impacts Iowan’s opinions of him? Trump’s offended Iowans a few times on the campaign trail as of late telling them they “aren’t good at picking winners,” but his popularity has remained steady in the state since before his visit to the fair last summer.



DONALD TRUMP RESPONDS TO TED CRUZ’S DEBATE CHALLENGE. After Donald Trump said he’d skip this week’s Republican presidential debate, his fiercest rival in the GOP race, Ted Cruz, has challenged Trump to a "mano a mano" debate. Cruz has even launched a website called that asks supporters to check "yes" to a debate between he and Trump, ABC’s JESSICA HOPPER reports. Cruz said that a debate between the two men could be moderated by conservatives like Mark Levin, Sean Hannity, Glenn Beck or Rush Limbaugh. He also said they could debate without a moderator."We’ll do 90 minutes, Lincoln Douglas, mano a mano. Donald and me. He can lay out his vision or this country, and I can lay out my vision for this country in front of the men and women of Iowa,” Cruz said.

ABC NEWS ANNOUNCES CRITERIA FOR NEW HAMPSHIRE REPUBLICAN DEBATE. ABC News has announced the criteria for its Republican presidential debate before the New Hampshire primary. The faceoff between the GOP presidential hopefuls is slated for Feb. 6 in Manchester, New Hampshire. Here are the three different ways candidates can gain an invitation for the debate stage:



@ryanstruyk: Unless this changes, here's why Clinton is still gonna be fine in SC: Blacks: Clinton 74, Sanders 17 Whites: Clinton 52, Sanders 41

@derekwillis: The anti-Trump Our Principles PAC reported $1.1 million in spending last night, it’s largest so far: …

@TheBrodyFile: .@GovMikeHuckabee says @tedcruz flip flopping on immigration, refugees, and gov't role in abortion and marriage …

@tripgabriel: Tough WaPo editorial on @BernieSanders' fictions: 'Many progressives like being told everything they want to hear' …

@realDonaldTrump: The "debate" tonight will be a total disaster - low ratings with advertisers and advertising rates dropping like a rock. I hate to see this.