Before the debate comes the pre-debate. And in 2016, the pre-debate — titillating the politerati and network executives alike — goes something like this:
Will Donald Trump actually attend all three presidential debates, or will he walk off the stage Monday night after his first faceoff with Hillary Clinton and, essentially, drop the mike?
For all its self-seriousness, Washington is naturally given to lighthearted guessing games: Will the Redskins ever be good again? How come everyone delights in posting green room selfies on Twitter and Instagram? And just why do young congressional aides still insist on wearing pleated khakis and boat shoes?
But even so, Trump, from his very first flirtation with politics (Will he actually run?) to the early days of his then-quixotic bid (Does he really have a shot?) to his ascension to the Republican nomination (Can he be stopped?), has displayed a showman’s knack for keeping audiences of all kinds raptly curious about his next act.
And a new question is obsessing the Trump-obsessed, with the first of three scheduled presidential debates drawing near: Will the capricious, unabashedly vain and uncommonly boastful Republican nominee, who skipped a climactic primary season debate in Iowa over a feud with Fox News anchor Megyn Kelly, wind up quitting after one confrontation with Clinton?
If he acquits himself well, the thinking goes, Trump may try to freeze the score rather than pushing his luck with a rematch. And if he bombs, he may well decide to eliminate the risk of a second drubbing.
“He’s a skilled media personality, but if he is held to the same commander-in-chief threshold as Secretary Clinton and fact-checked by the moderator, I wouldn’t be surprised if he took his ball and went home after the first debate,” said Jonathan Kott, a spokesman for Democratic Sens. Chris Coons of Delaware and Joe Manchin of West Virginia.
Like most issues in politics these days, the verdict is split, but not along strictly partisan lines.
“Woody Allen said 80 percent of life is showing up,” said Will Ritter, a co-founder of Poolhouse, a Republican advertising agency based in Richmond, Va. “It is also Donald Trump’s entire debate strategy. Donald Trump will do any debate that there are cameras at.”
Tracy Sefl, a Democratic strategist who is supporting Clinton, similarly suggested that Trump’s ego would not let him bypass the chance to be watched by as many as 100 million viewers.
“While I recognize that the campaign rule book has been thrown out in the Mar-a-Lago trash, we’re talking about a megalomaniac here,” she said. “Lights, camera, a platform to aggrandize and the world’s breathless anticipation? These are his four main food groups.”
Trump, characteristically, has left himself some verbal exit ramps: He told reporters on Labor Day that “as of this moment” he planned to attend every debate, barring something like a “natural disaster.” He has complained, falsely, that the moderators are all Democrats (Lester Holt of NBC, Monday’s moderator, is a registered Republican). And Trump has argued that the moderators should steer clear of fact-checking the candidates in real time, creating a potential pretext for withdrawing from later debates if Holt does not.
Some network executives have even privately floated the theory that the Commission on Presidential Debates chose Chris Wallace, the host of “Fox News Sunday,” to moderate the third debate in part because it considered Trump less likely to spurn a Fox News anchor (though Wallace is the only registered Democrat among the moderators).
Mike McCurry, co-chairman of the bipartisan Commission on Presidential Debates, noted what he called the “proud tradition of working the refs and spinning the game,” but said he believed that Trump would ultimately participate in all three matchups with Clinton.
Howard Kurtz, host of “MediaBuzz” on Fox News, suggested that Trump would feel obliged to go on with the show. “There is no way Donald Trump bails after the first debate, because that would be like walking out before the season finale of ‘The Apprentice,’” Kurtz said.
Still, as a carefree distraction, in an election year that has often felt like a never-ending episode of “Lost” — full of dark, grim surprises and countdown clocks — the “debate or not debate” debate seems to have served a purpose: killing time until Monday.
John Feehery, a Republican strategist, called it “a Twitter parlor game and a media parlor game and a some-people-who-really-hate-Trump-and-are-Republicans parlor game.”
But Brett O’Donnell, who was the director of messaging for Sen. John McCain’s 2008 presidential bid, and also helped former President George W. Bush and Mitt Romney prepare for their debates, suggested that the guessing game was focused on the wrong protagonist.
Depending on how Monday night’s debate turns out, he said, Clinton could easily be the one to decide against a reprise.
“After the first one, when they mud-wrestle for 90 minutes,” O’Donnell said, “if I were her, I’d say, ‘Gosh, this is below the presidency of the United States; I’m not going to do this anymore.’ ”