What a Trump-free debate will mean for the GOP candidates

JUDY WOODRUFF: But, first, we are getting close to voting time in the presidential race, and it seems this wild campaign continues to surprise.

Joining me now on this night when most, but apparently not all, Republicans will be debating, is our political director, Lisa Desjardins.

Hello, again, Lisa.



So, Donald Trump,by saying he is not going to be in this debate tonight, manages to be right in the center of the limelight, all over a dispute he's been having with FOX News Channel.

LISA DESJARDINS: That's right.

JUDY WOODRUFF: What's going on here? You have been talking to people.


JUDY WOODRUFF: What is it that they think Trump is trying to do?

LISA DESJARDINS: When you talk to people, Republican operatives, about this, they think Trump is trying to show that he defies the rules that he doesn't like, that he deifies the establishment when he thinks the establishment is wrong.

His supporters love this, Judy. They think, here is someone who can finally not just say they're going to change Washington, but will do things unexpected that will make a difference, take action.

But, of course, his opponents say this shows an unpredictable candidate who operates and reacts on emotion, not substance.

So, he is taking a risk there, but it seems his supporters really love him doing this. And, of course, he's using the proceeds to benefit veterans, but even there is an interesting sign about Trump. We don't know yet what veterans groups it is supporting. He hasn't announced it. The event is tonight.

So it's Trump again making a statement, but not giving us details.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, meanwhile, what about the Republicans who are going to be showing up on the debate stage tonight? This is an unusual moment for them. What do they need to do?

LISA DESJARDINS: That's right.

In the prime-time debate, there are still seven other Republicans who each of them think they still have a chance to be president, and for most of them, Judy, tonight is make or break. Let's start with Ted Cruz.

Now, he is right there with Donald Trump, in a sense, or they're fighting for a lot of the same space. But when I talk to operatives about him, they say Ted Cruz was doing fine when he didn't engage with Donald Trump. In the last week, he has engaged, Judy, and Ted Cruz hasn't really landed any punches on Donald Trump. It has not shown a strength for Ted Cruz.

So, he has a major decision tonight for everyone watching the debate. Does Ted Cruz go after Donald Trump or not? Then you turn to the rest of the field. I think this could be a very important night for John Kasich. Talking to people in New Hampshire, Judy, there is a tremendous amount of interest in John Kasich. He seems to be sort of rising as someone people are looking to as very human, practical, and smart, and I think he needs to stand out on his own two feet tonight.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Meantime, you have got the other party, the Democrats, again being overshadowed, but Bernie Sanders out with a new ad and announcing a different position on an important issue.

LISA DESJARDINS: That's right, starting with the ad. This is an ad that doesn't name anyone, but does say that there's a problem with Wall Street donating too much money to political campaigns and politicians.

I don't think Bernie Sanders is talking about Ross Perot. Clearly, this is a swipe at Hillary Clinton. The Clinton campaign came out today and said they see this as an attack ad, that Bernie Sanders has gone negative. Clearly, he's making a move here.

At the same time as he's going on office against her, he is going on defense. He announced today that he is co-sponsoring a bill that would reverse a bill he voted for on guns in 2005. Many of our viewers know that's the controversial bill that would protect some gun makers from civil lawsuits.

Sanders supported it in the past. He's reversed his position this January. Clinton's gone after him again and again in debates. It will be interesting to see what happens in our debate coming up in a couple weeks on that.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And this happening just five days before the caucuses.


JUDY WOODRUFF: There's a lot to digest.

Lisa Desjardins, keeping track of it all, thank you.