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First Read: Why Donald Trump Won the Debate Without Showing Up

First Read is a morning briefing from Meet the Press and the NBC Political Unit on the day's most important political stories and why they matter.

Why Trump won the debate without even showing up

DES MOINES, IA -- Earlier this week, we wrote that Donald Trump's decision not to attend Thursday's GOP debate could be a brilliant tactical move -- or a disastrous one. Well, after watching the two hours of debate last night, it was clearly the former. Why? We can count three reasons:

Trump Explains Why Skipping Debate Was a Good Move 0:32

His closest competition had a bad night: The man who's his closest competition in Iowa, Ted Cruz, had maybe his worst debate performance of the cycle. And a lot of it was due to the fact that he -- not Trump -- was the candidate with the target on his back. Marco Rubio went after Cruz, hard. So did Rand Paul. But it was Cruz who also did himself no favors by trying to win an interruption contest with co-moderator Chris Wallace (and lost) and who attacked the moderators' questions like he did at the CNBC debate (but was booed in the process). Cruz got his taste of being the frontrunner, and he struggled. The Des Moines Register's front page sums it up: "Rough Night for Cruz."

He got to skip Fox's brutal video montage: Trump also won by not showing up because he avoided getting the same kind of brutal video montage that Fox News showed first on Rubio (with his past statements vowing to fight amnesty and an earned path to legalization -- before backing the Gang of Eight immigration bill), and then on Cruz (on supporting immigration reform and a path to legal status). It was evidence to Iowa conservatives that NO ONE is going to get to Trump's right on the issue of immigration.

Cruz Criticizes Questions at Debate 0:28

And he got to sit on his lead in Iowa with three days to go: Given it all, Trump got to protect his lead in Iowa and in the other early contests. Now it's still possible that Trump could lose Iowa - due to turnout -- but it won't be because of last night's debate. When you think about it, what we all thought was Trump's gamble turned into the safest move for someone with the lead.

Trump's own bizarre counter-programing event

Meanwhile, NBC's Ali Vitali has the dispatch on the event where Trump DID show up. "The buzz for Trump's counter-debate programming was huge. The news out of the event, however, was less so. A packed auditorium of about 700 at Drake University listened to Trump speak — but Trump spoke for less time than veterans and fellow politicians that joined him on stage. In fact, he wasn't the only 2016 Republican candidate to speak behind the 'Trump' branded podium. Former Sen. Rick Santorum and former Gov. Mike Huckabee both joined Trump after appearing at the Fox undercard debate -- but it wasn't politics that brought them there, they said. Instead, it was to support the veterans. Still, it was a somewhat bizarre sight to see former Iowa caucus winners and current candidates alike speaking behind a podium emblazoned with the frontrunner's name on it. Santorum chose to counter that weirdness by standing off to the side of the podium, to avoid a bad shot. Huckabee on the other hand accepted it. 'I figure you're gonna get the photo anyway, I might as well just stand here and be done with it,' he said with a laugh."

Donald Trump on GOP Debate Boycott: "I Was Pushed Away" 2:43

Imagining what the GOP race would have looked like without Trump

As our colleague Alex Moe observed, last night's debate was a reminder of what the GOP race MIGHT have looked like if Trump hadn't run for president. Strikingly, Jeb Bush had his strongest debate of the cycle (just compare and contrast his showdown with Rubio on immigration last night vs. the showdown over Rubio's Senate voting record in October's CNBC debate). Rand Paul wasn't far behind. In fact, we have to agree with the take that Trump's candidacy hurt these two men more than any others in the GOP field. We already mentioned Cruz' rough night. But Rubio also has his struggles. Yes, he stood out -- in a good way -- during the first half of the debate. Yet when the conversation turned to immigration, especially the video montage, Rubio had to play defense on what has been his biggest vulnerability in this race. So the good news for Cruz was that, despite his own struggles, Rubio also got pounded from the right and left (from Jeb) on immigration.

Handicapping Rubio

The Rubio plotline has become a fascinating story. Does he surprise with a strong third place in Iowa (as our NBC/WSJ/Marist poll showed from yesterday) -- or even somehow finish in second? Or does he lag in the low double digits?

Another reason why Iowa is important for Clinton

A win prevents a big cash drain over the months ahead: As Hillary Clinton has attended fundraisers in last 48 hours in Philadelphia and New York, they're a reminder why she needs to win Iowa. If Bernie Sanders ends up carrying both Iowa and New Hampshire, he's going to create a real cash drain for Team Clinton, especially since Sanders raises his money over the internet, while Clinton raises much of hers at big-money fundraisers.

Sanders stumps with Cornel West -- maybe the biggest Obama critic from the left

In Iowa tonight, Bernie Sanders will campaign with academic Cornel West in Davenport and Dubuque. But as the Democratic race has turned into a contest over who is Obama's true heir -- Candidate Obama from '08 (Sanders), President Obama from 2009-2016 (Clinton) - West's appearance with Sanders is another reminder how complicated Sanders' relationship with Obama is. Here are some quotes from West on Obama, per the Washington Post's Jonathan Capehart:

  • West has called Obama "a Republican, a Rockefeller Republican in blackface."
  • He also called Obama "a black mascot of Wall Street oligarchs and a black puppet of corporate plutocrats."
  • And he said this about the president: "I think my dear brother Barack Obama has a certain fear of free black men," West said. "It's understandable. As a young brother who grows up in a white context, brilliant African father, he's always had to fear being a white man with black skin. All he has known culturally is white."

On the trail

Donald Trump holds a rally in Nashua, NH at 10:00 am ET, while everyone else is in Iowa… Hillary Clinton has events in Des Moines, Dubuque, and Davenport… Bill Clinton hits Fairfield, Muscatine, and joins his wife in Davenport… Ted Cruz makes five stops in the Hawkeye State… Marco Rubio holds four… Jeb Bush also is in Iowa, hitting Carroll, Sioux City and Sioux Center… John Kasich, Chris Christie, Ben Carson, and Carly Fiorina also are in Hawkeye State… And ditto Bernie Sanders, who hits Mount Pleasant, Washington, Muscatine, Davenport (with Cornel West), and Dubuque (with West again)

Countdown to Iowa: 3 days

Countdown to New Hampshire: 11 days