Fox News

Editor’s note: Truthdig staff will be live-blogging the GOP undercard and main debates on the site starting at 4 p.m. PST. Also, watch our Facebook page and Twitter feed @Truthdig for social media coverage and commentary during the two events.

Donald Trump’s out. Rand Paul’s in. Fox News anchor Megyn Kelly, currently and weirdly being lionized in certain mainstream outlets (see here and here), will hang on to her seat as one of the moderators at the seventh Republican presidential debate Thursday. Here’s a survey of what may be in store for would-be voters watching the GOP hopefuls jostle for position in Trump’s absence.

First, a quick recap: Trump gamely showed up Wednesday evening for a softball fest—complete with chummy banter and family-friendly wagers involving milkshakes—on Fox News’ prime-time show, “The O’Reilly Factor.” One day prior, he had harrumphed his way out of participating in the Fox News/Google-sponsored faceoff in Des Moines, Iowa, just four days shy of the crucial caucuses scheduled in that state.

His no-show power move, which he was willing to discuss with host Bill O’Reilly until he declared it was time to switch topics (O’Reilly immediately complied), initially had to do with Kelly’s very presence, even if mitigated by co-moderators Bret Baier and Chris Wallace, at the event. Then, the Murdochian network sealed the deal by teasing Trump in a statement deriding his feud with Kelly and his boycott threat.

O’Reilly, who has himself come under fire because of alleged personal and professional incidents, didn’t so much defend Kelly as unconvincingly wag his finger at Trump for missing the point of the debate exercise while reminding viewers that the two men were both card-carrying members of the nation’s power elite.

Because the question posed in the above headline isn’t meant to be answered so much as considered, here’s a look at some of the pre-debate conversation:

First, all eyes will likely be on Trump’s main rival, Sen. Ted Cruz, and thus the main showdown will be about Cruz control — whether he can wrest it from his absent opponent and whether he can fend off stepped-up attacks from those present. Tina Nguyen of Vanity Fair touches on that theme in her preview piece.

But it’s not as if Cruz will be the only candidate taking the heat. The New York Times checked in with a small army of political reporters to get their respective reads on the evening’s proceedings, and the paper’s Jeremy Peters forecast a stormy time for Florida upstart, Sen. Marco Rubio:

With Mr. Trump’s absence, Mr. Rubio could become the punching bag who fills the void. Mr. Cruz, Mr. Christie and Mr. Bush have all attacked the Florida senator in previous debates. (He has also been the subject of more than $20 million in attack ads.) Not that Mr. Rubio won’t be looking to get in a few swings himself. But expect most of his attacks to be focused on Mr. Cruz. If Mr. Cruz wins Iowa, Mr. Rubio’s path to the nomination gets much harder.

The Times’ lineup also offered observations about New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie possibly filling the straight-talk vacuum left by Trump; about whether John Kasich’s rising poll numbers in another critical state, New Hampshire, will make him more of a target; and about Ben Carson’s ability to make any impression whatsoever.

Meanwhile, Jeremy Diamond of CNN stares into the Trumpless void and wonders whether the unorthodox Republican front-runner’s latest publicity bid will cost him or boost him.

As for Jeb Bush—who, aside from Paul’s triumphant return to the main debate, is the candidate most likely to fare better on a stage not shared by Trump—has taken to Twitter to jab at his chief antagonist, as Fox News’ own Howard Kurtz pointed out:

On a logistical note, The New York Times listed tips on how to watch and listen to the debates on various platforms and devices.

Thursday’s undercard debate will include, for the first time since the GOP’s first go-round last August, former Virginia Gov. Jim Gilmore, alongside Carly Fiorina, Mike Huckabee and Rick Santorum.

Once again, watch this space.

–Posted by Kasia Anderson

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