Open thread: The "Where's Donald?" debate

9 p.m. ET on, of course, Fox News. We know where Donald will be: He’ll be on MSNBC showing his commitment to veterans by directing viewers to a website that wasn’t online until this morning sporting a donations page that will channel all contributions to his personal foundation, which traditionally hasn’t donated much to vets. At one point today the website featured a photo of a “soldier” who’s actually a Ukrainian actor, just to give you a sense of how quickly this was thrown together. When asked earlier this afternoon to name a veterans group that’s associated with the event, Trump spokesperson Katrina Pierson passed. So that’s what’s going on elsewhere around the dial this evening.

As for the debate, the strategy’s straightforward. Cruz will be trying to kill Trump, Rubio will be trying to kill Cruz, and Bush, Christie, and Kasich will be trying to kill Rubio. Cruz is in a tricky position here in that if he hits Trump too hard, he may come off as picking on a guy who’s not around to defend himself. He’ll be careful with any overly nasty zingers, I take it, but otherwise the blueprint is clear — Trump’s not a conservative; more importantly, per all the establishment support he’s gotten lately, he’s not a genuine populist; and he’s way, way too unpredictable to trust with the world’s most important job. Rubio, meanwhile, needs to tear down Cruz to try to stop him from winning Iowa, which would give Cruz momentum in New Hampshire and beyond and set him up for a long primary run. Expect a kitchen-sink attack from him too — Cruz is weak on defense; Cruz accepted dirty, dirty Chinese money to defend them in court (which sounds like a Trump attack, honestly); and Cruz is much worse on amnesty than anyone suspects. Interesting stuff at that last link:

Once in Texas, he joined the board of advisers for HAPI, the prestigious group of Latino conservatives that included George P. Bush, former members of Congress, and multiple veterans of the Reagan, George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush administrations.

While Cruz was a member of the board and its policy committee, HAPI advocated conservative positions to an array of issues, including its opposition to both climate change legislation and the Affordable Care Act. On immigration, HAPI strongly advocated for a path to legalization, including President Bush’s principles for immigration reform, as well as the 2006 McCain-Kennedy immigration reform bill…

The former HAPI board member, who asked not to be named in order to speak freely, described Cruz as a fully engaged member of the group. Cruz co-chaired a 2005 event featuring Gov. Rick Perry and served as a keynote speaker for two of the group’s events. And because of Cruz’s legal expertise, board members said they relied on him to do the first draft of policy positions, including HAPI’s support for immigration reform. When he ran for Senate in 2012, HAPI hosted a fundraiser to support his candidacy.

“It’s just bullsh*t,” said one former HAPI board member to the Daily Beast. “Don’t throw us under the bus for legalization and not take on the nativists and the crazies when you wrote the language. Stand for something.” Think you’ll hear this mentioned by Rubio this evening now that he’s within striking distance of Cruz in Iowa in one major poll?

Speaking of Cruz’s troubles in Iowa, my pal Karl tells me that Cruz was talking up South Carolina in his interview with “The Five” today, possibly suggesting that he has reason to believe Iowa is slipping away and it’s time to overhaul expectations. Maybe he saw the new PPP poll showing him now down eight points to Trump, 31/23? The following trend is simultaneously pedestrian and amazing, pedestrian because it’s a logical consequence of all the Trump fans who used to like Cruz turning on him as the war with Trump escalated but also amazing because a net drop of 30 points in favorability is a lot of change in less than a month:

Cruz has seen a large drop in his favorability rating over the last few weeks, from 69/18 down to just 56/35. Trump’s continued focus on the ‘Canadian birther’ issue may really be a big part of what’s helping him at Cruz’s expense. We found on our last Iowa poll that only 32% of Republican voters thought someone born in another country should be allowed to serve as President, and attention to Cruz’s birthplace has been a constant since that last poll.

The good news for Cruz is that he leads Trump 50/21 among the 30 percent of the electorate that’s backing one of the “also-ran” candidates. If those people end up abandoning their candidate of choice and voting strategically between Cruz and Trump — and 43 percent of them say they’re still open to changing their minds — then Cruz is in good shape. The bad news is that 80 percent of Trump’s fans say they’re locked in versus just 71 percent of Cruz fans who say so. He may lose some votes among his own base to Trump or Rubio at the last second, particularly given how effective Trump’s been milking the issue of Cruz’s eligibility. And if you think Team Trump might be done with that anytime soon, read this.

As for the rest of the field tonight, the establishmentarians Bush, Kasich, and Christie need to snuff any developing Rubio momentum or Iowa or else he’s going to surf into NH, lock up most of the center-righty votes there, and suddenly the other three in that lane are finished. Jeb will probably divide his time between attacking Rubio and Trump, since being anti-Trump is part of his “brand” now. He can’t hit Trump too hard, though — remember, Jeb’s strategy is premised on him and Trump emerging as the final two, so Bush actually wants Trump to win Iowa. If anything, he should be attacking Cruz tonight to help make that happen. The risk in doing that, though, is that if Trump squashes Cruz in Iowa, Cruz’s fans may start defecting towards Rubio as the lone remaining conservative-ish hope of stopping Trump, which hurts Bush in New Hampshire. What Jeb wants ideally out of Iowa, I think, is Trump winning, Cruz finishing a strong enough second that he holds onto his voters in NH, and Rubio finishing dismally with a distant third place. I don’t think he’s going to get that last result but the other two are plausible. Another wild card tonight is Rand Paul, who’s back on the main stage and free to attack pretty much anyone, really. He dumps on Trump routinely; he’s been smacking Rubio for months for his hyper-hawkishness; and more recently he’s been trying to claw back some of the Paul base from Cruz by attacking him as a phony libertarian. Rand’s best strategic move would be to focus on Cruz and hope that frees up some libertarian votes for a surprising Paul showing in Iowa or New Hampshire, but he seems most committed to going after Rubio. There’s logic in that, I guess. If you want to impress libertarians, why not target the most ostentatious neoconservative in the field?

Here’s your thread to comment and commiserate as you’re forced to endure 15 different variations of “How can you stand up to Putin if you can’t stand up to Megyn Kelly?” As I write this at a little before 6 p.m. ET, prediction markets think there’s an eight percent chance Trump shows up tonight in spite of everything. I think he’s too invested in his veterans event to eat crow now, but being there to rebut Cruz’s attacks would be the smart move. And the drama, which is Trump’s lifeblood, would be off the charts. Although, if he really wants to take over the media tonight, he should send Palin to debate in his place like Brando sending Sacheen Littlefeather. I’ll leave you with this from Saudi Prince Alwaleed, responding to an obvious photoshop of himself with Megyn Kelly that was retweeted by Trump this morning. If ever you wanted proof that Trump-style trolling has gone global, here it is. (You’ll find background on the Trump-Alwaleed relationship here.)