Open thread: Are you ready for the first GOP non-debate debate?

The things you learn when you return from vacation: Not only is the first candidate forum of the primary campaign being held tonight at 7 p.m. ET, three days before the Trump show/GOP debate on Fox News this Thursday, but virtually every candidate will be in New Hampshire to attend. Jeb Bush? Yup. Scott Walker? Absolutely. Marco Rubio? Indeed. Ted Cruz? Him too. Rand Paul? Confirmed. Chris Christie, Rick Perry, Bobby Jindal, and Ben Carson? All have RSVP’d. Just three men in the field won’t be there: Mike Huckabee, Jim “Who?” Gilmore, and … Donald Trump. There’s a story to that, as there usually is with Trump:

Donald Trump is still not participating in next Monday’s Voters First Presidential Forum in New Hampshire, but now he says it is because he thinks he is unlikely to get the New Hampshire Union Leader’s endorsement and, besides, he thinks there are too many candidates for one event.

Given a deadline of last Friday, Trump’s office had said he would not participate because of a Union Leader editorial critical of him for questioning U.S. Sen. John McCain’s Vietnam war record. At an Iowa event, Trump had disputed that McCain was a “war hero,” saying, “He’s a war hero because he was captured. I like people that weren’t captured.”

But Tuesday, in a letter to Union Leader Publisher Joseph W. McQuaid, Trump wrote: “…knowing you as I do, I feel it is unlikely I will be getting the endorsement from you and the Union Leader. I have made a great fortune based on instinct and that, unfortunately, is my view. Therefore, and for other reasons including the fact that I feel there are too many people onstage to have a proper forum, I will not be attending.”

The Union Leader and other sponsors organized the forum because they thought the Fox debate format, splitting the field into also-rans for the 5 p.m. event and then a main event of higher polling candidates later, was flawed and unfair. All the candidates deserve to be heard equally, so that’s what tonight’s event aims to do. It’s not a debate, where the participants will engage with each other, but rather a Q&A of each attendee in sequence in which “each candidate will individually answer two rounds of questions and give a closing statement.” I wonder if Trumpmania will come up or if the Union Leader will deliberately avoid the topic so as not to reward Trump’s snub with more free publicity. That’ll be difficult to do after today’s Monmouth poll showing him far ahead of the field with 26 percent, a figure matched by a new Fox News poll that came out just within the past hour:

Roger Ailes and Fox’s team will finalize the 10 participants in the main event at Thursday’s debate tomorrow night at 5 p.m. If they go by the numbers above, Christie and Kasich would be the last two men in. Trump nemesis Rick Perry, who’s spent the last few weeks attacking him in hopes of boosting his numbers to a threshold needed to make the main debate, would end up stuck in the 5 p.m. debate. Although, frankly, the more I think about that, the more I think it might be a blessing in disguise. If the evening debate turns into Trumpapalooza, no one will benefit except the Donald himself and maybe Jeb Bush, assuming he ends up as Trump’s main target. It’s the earlier debate where candidates will be able to present themselves without worrying about being overshadowed. And since “debates” are really just an opportunity to promote soundbites that’ll be replayed later on cable news and social media, Perry could still see his attacks on Trump being circulated on Friday. The only major advantage of being in the evening debate is that Trump’s presence guarantees a huge viewing audience. But who cares about that if you end up coming off as little more than a clown in Trump’s circus?

As for why you should watch tonight, the Boston Herald is right on:

Campaign insiders are hoping tonight’s New Hampshire forum featuring nearly every GOP presidential hopeful — arranged in protest of the Republican National Committee’s exclusion of lower-tier candidates from Thursday’s national debate — could shake up notions of who should be allowed on stage in the pivotal primary weeks ahead.

“They’re probably having some second thoughts at this point about changing things,” said Gene Chandler, a Carly Fiorina supporter and deputy speaker of the New Hampshire House of Representatives, who signed a protest letter to the RNC and thinks they might change the rules for future debates. “So we’ve got to go ahead and do the best we can with it, and see what happens.”

Neither the RNC nor Fox News wants the main debate on Thursday to be an all-male affair. If Fiorina impresses in her Q&A tonight, as she tends to do in public appearances, Ailes may have to bend the rules somehow to get her in. Same goes for Perry: If he hits Trump hard, can Ailes really afford to stick him in the 5 p.m. debate and forgo the fireworks he and Trump would provide in the main event? Tonight’s essentially the last chance for lower-rung candidates to make their case to Fox for including them in the big show.

The whole thing’s being carried live on C-SPAN. Watch at home on TV or click here and watch online. Here’s your thread for commenting. Exit question via Gabe Malor: Will the moderators ask each candidate if he/she will support a government shutdown to defund Planned Parenthood?