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Greg Bluestein

Did Donald Trump win the debate he skipped?

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Donald Trump shares the stage with the two past winners of the Iowa caucus at his counter-rally.

“You have to stick up for your rights. When you’re treated badly, you have to stick up for your rights.”

That was how Donald Trump opened the fundraiser he staged for military veterans in lieu of the Republican presidential debate going on about three miles down the road.

As his seven top rivals for the GOP nomination tried to soak up the spotlight without him on stage, Trump was still able to command media attention while avoiding the slings and arrows of his competitors – and the biting questions from Fox News moderators.

Trump skipped the debate because of an ongoing feud with the host network, but much ink has already been spilled scrutinizing whether it will hurt his campaign ahead of Monday’s Iowa caucus vote.

Hours after it ended, many pundits saw it as a shrewd move, especially given the tough questions from Fox host Megyn Kelly aimed at Texas Sen. Ted Cruz and Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, both Trump’s top rivals in national polls.

The use of “Meet the Press”-style video clips reminding the two senators of their past conflicting positions on immigration was the most gripping part of the debate. Surely, then, the network had its own montage of Trump’s evolving stances on abortion and his kind words about Democrat front-runner Hillary Clinton at the ready.

“My sense was that Trump was probably wise to skip it: He didn’t pay much of a price for staying away, he avoided tough questions and attacks, and his rivals used the occasion to slash each other,” wrote the New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof.

And yet he still managed to overshadow much of the debate. The first 15 minutes – when most viewers are typically tuned in – was focused more on him than any other candidate. About halfway through the two-hour showdown, Twitter reported that nearly 40 percent of the online conversation was about him. And he easily earned the most searches on Google.

Winning another news cycle, though, doesn’t mean he’ll win Iowa. He’s still neck-and-neck with Cruz in polls amid the frantic, final campaigning across the state. And the Trump vacuum gave Rubio, Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush more valuable airtime.

Trump, meanwhile, seemed to relish in another day in the media glare. He enticed former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee and ex-Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum – both former winners of the Iowa caucus who are struggling in the polls this year – to join him at his fundraiser.

And he mocked commentators who wondered what the no-show would mean for his chances at the caucus.

“Is it for me, personally, a good thing, a bad thing? Will I get more votes, less votes? Nobody knows. Who the hell knows.”

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