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Des Moines — The focus of Thursday night’s final Republican presidential candidate debate before Iowans vote in Monday caucuses could be as much about who’s not on stage as what is said by the seven White House hopefuls.

GOP front-runner Donald Trump’s abrupt decision Tuesday night to boycott the Fox News/Google debate in Des Moines created a new drama about the bombastic billionaire’s unorthodox campaign for the nation’s highest office. Some Trump supporters backed the decision, while critics wondered why the billionaire fears a cable television anchor.

After a feud with Fox News’ Megyn Kelly’s role as a debate moderator boiled over, Trump said his campaign will hold a competing event Thursday night at Drake University in Des Moines to raise money for the Wounded Warrior Project. The real estate mogul wanted the cable news network to donate some of its advertising proceeds to the veterans support group and drop Kelly as one of the three moderators.

Two veterans of Republican Iowa politics predicted Trump’s boycott would backfire at the Monday caucuses.

“There’s potential there for (Trump) to win the Iowa caucuses, but this is pretty irrational behavior,” said Doug Gross, a Des Moines attorney who was the 2002 Iowa Republican gubernatorial nominee. “It kind of makes you question whether you want to pull the lever for this guy.”

Some Trump supporters say they’re sticking with him. “It wouldn’t mean anything to me” if Trump skips the debate, said Larry Warnell, a Trump supporter from Marshalltown.

“I thought Megyn Kelly was out of line” during a prior debate, Warnell said.

In the August debate in Cleveland, Kelly asked Trump about disparaging remarks he has made over the years about women, calling some “fat pigs, dogs, slobs and disgusting animals.” He brushed off the question as political correctness and later said it was “ridiculous” and “off base.”

Fox News called Trump’s late decision to bolt from the debate “near unprecedented” and that cable news channel wouldn’t bow to Trump’s “threats.”

Steve Scheffler, Iowa’s Republican National Committeeman who is neutral in the race, said Trump may still be the focus of the debate even without being on stage.

“If some of the candidates feel a free rein to criticize him, he’s not there to defend himself or throw some punches back,” Scheffler told The Detroit News. “I think it would be to his benefit to show up.”

If Trump doesn’t participate, the debate stage will host U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, Ohio Gov. John Kasich, retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and U.S. Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky.

Bush, whose campaign has struggled in the shadow of Trump’s media dominance, had little sympathy for Trump’s tiff with Fox News.

“Really? Donald Trump’s not being treated fairly by the press? He consumes all of the press,” Bush said Wednesday during a question-and-answer session with employees of Nationwide Insurance at their Des Moines office.

“It’s like he’s a Stradivarius violinist from the Vienna symphony,” Bush added. “The press is just being played like nobody’s business. Poor little Donald, being mistreated.”

Cruz intensifies attacks

Trump’s likely absence on the debate stage with five days until Iowa’s first-in-the-nation caucuses comes as he battles Cruz, his closest rival in Iowa polls among likely caucus-goers. He is starting to take daily attacks from Cruz and abortion opponents for saying in 1999 that he’s “pro-choice in every respect.”

At a campaign event in rural Iowa, Cruz called Trump “a fragile soul” and attempted to use the former reality television star’s famous words from the show “Celebrity Apprentice” against him.

“If someone did that, didn’t show up at the interview, you know what you’d say? ‘You’re fired,’ ” Cruz said in Fairfield, Iowa.

Trump made his surprise announcement that he would “most likely” skip the debate during a press conference Tuesday evening in the weight room of a high school in Marshalltown, a central Iowa farming community 56 miles northeast of Des Moines.

Trump said Kelly is biased against him, calling her a “third-rate reporter” and a “total lightweight” — the kind of verbal bombs he’s lobbed at his GOP rivals for months.

“They’re going to make a fortune with the debate,” Trump told reporters before a campaign rally in Marshalltown, Iowa. “Now let’s see how many people watch.”

But when Trump took the stage in the school’s gymnasium and answered questions from a local talk show host, he made no mention of his decision to skip the only party-sanctioned debate taking place in Iowa this election cycle.

“I made a little bit of an announcement before, but it’s not that big of a deal,” Trump told the crowd of Iowans. “... After a year you’re going to say, ‘Wow. What a difference.’ You’re going to be so proud of your country again. And we’re going to make America great again.”

After the Trump campaign event, attendees had mixed reactions to Trump’s decision to sit out the seventh Republican debate.

“That’s one less opportunity for him to make his case,” said undecided voter Nick Lewarne, 24, of Marshalltown. “It’s his loss.”

In a statement, a Fox News representative said Trump “has viciously attacked” Kelly.

“Trump is still welcome at Thursday night’s debate and will be treated fairly, just as he has been during his 132 appearances on Fox News & Fox Business, but he can’t dictate the moderators or the questions,” the statement said.

Rivals hit Trump’s decision

Trump’s rivals and critics quickly seized on his departure, which will give other candidates more air time during the 9 p.m. two-hour debate.

GOP strategist Katie Packer, a Michigan native who is running a new anti-Trump super political action committee, said Trump’s decision to skip the debate exposes a weakness to criticism.

“Trumps claims that he’s going to take on Putin, China, North Korea, Syria and Mexico fall a little flat when he’s scared of Megyn Kelly,” said Packer, who was Mitt Romney’s 2012 deputy campaign manager. “Apparently he’s met his match.”

Others weren’t sure if this was just another play for publicity by Trump, who has rewritten the traditional presidential campaign script this election cycle.

“I would not be surprised if he ends up in the debate,” Dr. Ben Carson told reporters Tuesday night after a campaign event in Des Moines.

Bush also was preparing Wednesday for another night of debate sparring with Trump.

“He’s apparently not going to come to do the debate, although I’ve got a $20 bet he’ll show up,” Bush said.

clivengood@detroitnews.com

Republican debate

What: 7th GOP presidential debate

When: 9 p.m.

Where: Iowa Events Center, Des Moines

How to watch: Fox News Channel

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