WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump's vow to skip the next debate if it is held virtually delighted supporters but confounded observers who say he risks throwing away one of his last best chances to change the course of a race he is currently losing.
"The president's threat to walk away from a virtual debate is a power move that seems almost certain to backfire," said Liam Donovan, a Republican strategist.
"This debate may be the last best opportunity to score a game-changing moment or otherwise hope to impact the trajectory of this race before it's too late," he added. "It's also one of the few remaining speed bumps for Vice President Biden, and Trump would be doing Joe a real favor by letting him off the hook."
The non-partisan Commission on Presidential Debates announced Thursday it would hold the town hall face off virtually to "protect the health and safety of all involved" as Trump continues to recover from Covid-19. The president almost immediately rejected the plan.
In an interview with Fox Business, Trump insisted without evidence that he is not contagious and that the second debate should proceed as planned with him and Biden on stage in Miami on Oct. 15, saying, "I'm not going to waste my time on a virtual debate. That is not acceptable to us. I beat him easily in the first debate...They're trying to protect Biden, everybody is."
The remarks immediately overshadowed Vice President Mike Pence's relatively well-reviewed performance in the lone VP debate against Sen. Kamala Harris less than twelve hours earlier.
And it left some Republicans scratching their heads, including some of Trump's own aides, who are pushing him to reconsider, a White House official told NBC News.
Biden, who at first said he would participate in a virtual debate, later asked that the second face off be moved to Oct. 22, so Trump could take part in person. Biden said that second debate should be the final debate even though three had been scheduled.
The Trump campaign also said it wants the second debate moved to Oct. 22 and that the third debate, originally set for Oct. 22, be moved to Oct. 29, which would be just four days before the Nov. 3 election.
The NBC News national polling average showed the president trailing Biden by 10 percentage points on Thursday.
Whit Ayers, a top GOP pollster, suspected Trump might reconsider after some reflection and discussions with advisers, just as he did on negotiations over another round of economic stimulus earlier this week.
"He's behind, and he needs to take every opportunity to try to close the gap," Ayers said. "The only upside to him skipping this is if his performance is going to be comparable to the one we saw last (at the first debate). And that would be difficult to pull off, virtually."
But for Trump allies, the move is everything they like about the president: A brash show of strength and willingness to brush away stuffy conventions and challenge the news media, along with Washington institutions like the debate commission. The president has an enormous megaphone, they argue, and he can reach millions of Americans anytime, so he doesn't need to submit himself to someone else's rules he doesn't like.
Dan Eberhart, a major Republican donor, said that while Trump might be missing a chance to speak to a wider audience of voters who don't typically follow the daily churn of politics, he was taking an important stand.
"Trump is right to put his foot down. They are unilaterally changing the rules," Eberhart said. "A virtual debate is going to water down the back and forth and deprive the viewers of how the leaders handle confrontation."
Trump feeds off crowds and his debate strategy of dominating the stage would be difficult, if not impossible, in a virtual format.
"For the swamp creatures at the Presidential Debate Commission to now rush to Joe Biden's defense by unilaterally canceling an in-person debate is pathetic," Trump campaign manager Bill Stepien said in a statement.
The debate commission said it made the decision without consultation from either campaign.
The debates are voluntary and then-President Jimmy Carter refused to participate in the first debate in 1980 against Ronald Reagan because it also included a third-party candidate. Reagan went ahead with that debate earned a boost from the exposure, before going on to win the election in a landslide.
Alex Conant, a veteran of several Republican presidential campaigns and the George W. Bush White House, said it's not uncommon for sitting presidents to flub their first debate and then find their footing in the second and third.
"Trump badly needs another debate. In reality, he needs 10 more debates. And needs it as soon as possible," Conant said. "So why he would create the potential for the debate to be canceled is just not obvious."
Democrats said Trump's threat to boycott was timid and erratic, although they also doubted whether he will really follow through on it.
"I don't know why the president is afraid to participate in the debate," former Democratic presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg said on Fox News.
Matt Bennett, the executive vice president of the centrist Democratic think tank Third Way, called Trump's comments "completely bonkers," comparing it to his decision to cut off the Covid-19 relief talks with Congress when most analysts believe more economic stimulus would benefit him politically.
"He is losing — he desperately needs both good economic news and an opportunity to shake up the race," Bennett said. "He did the opposite."
Still, Biden and other Democrats are not counting on getting a pass next week.
"That was 12 seconds ago right? He may have changed his mind since then," Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., joked Thursday morning on MSNBC about Trump.