AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
From the start, the Republican presidential contest has defied conventional wisdom. Now everyone's trying to figure out what the latest twist means. Donald Trump has said that he will not take part in tomorrow night's debate in Iowa. This came as a big surprise to many because the Iowa caucuses are on Monday. NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson joins us now from Iowa Public Radio. Hey there, Mara.
MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: Hi, Audie.
CORNISH: All right, so assuming there's not another twist in this story and that Donald Trump does in fact sit out this debate, how will his absence affect the race?
LIASSON: Well, it's a good question. Now, in the past, he has threatened not to show up at debates, and in the end, he always has turned up. And tonight, he is actually going on Fox to talk, so assuming, however, that he does not show, we do know one thing. There won't be an empty podium because the RNC doesn't allow that. We don't know how it might affect the race because in the past, these debates haven't affected Trump's poll numbers positively or negatively, but it is still a risk because he's leaving Ted Cruz, his big opponent in Iowa, unchallenged. He's giving Cruz an unchallenged opportunity to say that Trump is weak, he's afraid of Megyn Kelly, he's not tough enough, he's scared of a fight. Cruz will remind everyone that he called Iowa voters stupid, and temperament is Trump's biggest negative. For a frontrunner, he has very high personal negatives. So it is a risk.
CORNISH: So given what you've said about Ted Cruz there, why would Trump take that risk?
LIASSON: It's a good question. Maybe he thinks that he just wants to run out the clock. He feels he has Iowa in the bag, although the polls here show a pretty tight race. He does have good reason to think that the rules don't apply to him because they haven't yet. He recently said that he could go out on Fifth Avenue and shoot someone and not lose any of his voters. So maybe he just feels he's - he and his lead are invincible.
CORNISH: Let's give this a little bit more context. What's at stake here when it comes to Iowa?
LIASSON: The stakes are very high. First of all, for Ted Cruz, the stakes are high because he has to win Iowa. This is his state. It's filled with Christian conservatives, evangelical voters. It's hard to see how he would go on to get the nomination without winning it. Trump, on the other hand, doesn't have to win Iowa to get the nomination. He has a big lead in New Hampshire and in other states.
But if the headline on Tuesday is, Trump loses Iowa, I think that will be a big deal. His whole campaign is based on winning, not losing. He hates losers. That's his biggest epithet - winning the polls, winning the debates, and that's why many people are thinking this could be Trump's first major misstep of the campaign because this debate is a very important one. It's the last one before Iowans vote. Iowans decide late. Forty percent of them say that they could still change their mind. So a lot of them will be tuning in to watch the debate, and we don't know how they're going to react if they don't see him on that stage.
CORNISH: And of course, you're following the Democratic race as well. You covered an event that Hillary Clinton held in Iowa today. And I hear she's been calling for an added debate to the calendar between Iowa and New Hampshire. What's your take on that?
LIASSON: Well, the shoe is on the other foot - sounds like a sign of weakness. Maybe she wants an insurance policy in case she loses Iowa. Debates have been very good for her, but it just goes to show you it's very hard to decide in advance that fewer debates are better. Prohibitive frontrunners generally don't need to debate, don't want to debate, but she's not the prohibitive frontrunner anymore. If this debate does go forward, it would not be sanctioned by the Democratic Party. Bernie Sanders has not agreed to this debate yet. And why would he? If he wins in Iowa and keeps his big lead in New Hampshire, he probably won't.
CORNISH: That's NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson. She spoke to us from Iowa Public Radio. Mara, thanks so much.
LIASSON: Thank you, Audie.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.