DES MOINES, Iowa — In a race that has already seen its fair share of twists and turns, Ted Cruz is staring down a circumstance unlike any other: the absence of his closest competition at the last debate here before the first-in-the-nation caucuses.
The stakes are not insignificant for the U.S. senator from Texas, who is locked in a close race in Iowa with billionaire Donald Trump — an "absolute dead heat," in Cruz's telling. Trump's decision Tuesday to skip the debate over problems he has with its moderators has upended the contest with four days to go until the caucuses, scrambling the dynamic on the debate stage Thursday night in Des Moines.
For Cruz, the No. 2 candidate in many polls, Trump's snub could make him the center of action at the Iowa Events Center, a role that comes with both risks and rewards.
"If Trump's not there, it affects the strategy other candidates take toward Cruz," said Christopher Larimer, a political science professor at the University of Northern Iowa. "Do they treat Cruz like the frontrunner, or do they talk about Trump?"
At the same time, Larimer added, the debate could be a "lost opportunity" for Cruz to challenge Trump on his conservative credentials in what's likely their last meeting before the caucuses.
Acknowledging Trump has never been known for predictability, Cruz's campaign says it is ready for all scenarios, including a last-minute about face by Trump that could put him on the debate stage.
"He's erratic. You don't know what he's going to do," Cruz spokesman Rick Tyler said Thursday morning. "We're prepared if he shows up either way."
As he usually does the day of debates, Cruz is hunkering down with senior campaign officials in the host city, holding no public events and no media appearances. At a pre-debate rally Wednesday evening in West Des Moines, Cruz ratcheted up the pressure on Trump to tangle with him one-on-one, naming a time and a place: 8 p.m. Saturday at Western Iowa Tech Community College in Sioux City.
Since Trump pulled out of the debate, Cruz's campaign has dispatched a flurry of surrogates to taunt Trump, who is now set to attend an event for veterans during the debate at Drake University.
"What I find ironic in all this is the fact that Donald Trump, someone who several times relied on student deferments to dodge Vietnam, is now hiding behind veterans to dodge a debate," Cruz spokeswoman Alice Stewart said Wednesday evening on CNN. "And it's all simply because he's afraid of a female moderator that's going to ask him some tough questions."
Trump has been feuding with Fox News host Megyn Kelly since the first GOP debate, when she asked him about his negative comments toward women. Cruz has questioned how Trump would be able to stand up to world leaders as president if he cannot deal with Kelly in a debate.
The episode is serving as deja vu for many of the people who helped elect Cruz to the U.S. Senate in 2012. In that race, the then-underdog Cruz also accused his opponent — David Dewhurst, the lieutenant governor at the time — of ducking debates because he did not want voters to scrutinize his record.
One of Cruz's early supporters, state Sen. Konni Burton of Colleyville, said Wednesday afternoon that Trump is running scared due to the last debate, when Cruz confronted Trump over questions about his eligibility to be president and what Cruz sees as the billionaire's liberal views on some issues. Cruz aides later boasted that the debate showed Cruz is the only candidate who can take on Trump and win.
"I believe that Trump knows full well that Cruz would do that again this debate," Burton said. "He's using Megyn Kelly as an excuse."
Trump's campaign is not budging, especially when it comes to Cruz's debate challenge. Trump campaign manager Corey Lewandowski has said Trump would be happy to debate Cruz one-on-one if the primary comes down to the two of them. In an interview Wednesday evening on CNN, Lewandowski said Cruz was getting desperate because his campaign is "falling apart in Iowa."
The state is looking more and more critical for Cruz, who trails Trump by double digits in many polls in the next two early voting states, New Hampshire and South Carolina. Cruz and his allies have warned that a win by Trump in the Hawkeye State could set him on a path to the nomination — momentum that the senator could have had a high-profile setting to slow Thursday night.
However, with Trump off the stage in Des Moines, Larimer said, Cruz "can't challenge Trump in person, which could potentially have a significant impact."