The latest Republican to pull out of Donald Trump's debate? Donald Trump. The real estate mogul and reality television star announced Tuesday that he is abandoning plans to moderate a Dec. 27 Iowa debate hosted by conservative publisher Newsmax, after only Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum agreed to show up. Ron Paul and Jon Huntsman were the most critical of Trump, saying the event would have been beneath the dignity of candidates for the presidency, but Mitt Romney, Rick Perry, and Michele Bachmann declined invites, too. Trump, who flirted with his own bid for the GOP nomination earlier this year, says he still might run as an independent, and is thus bowing out of the debate "so that there is no conflict of interest within the Republican Party." Is that the real reason? Many commentators aren't so sure. Here, four competing theories:
1. Trump is just scrambling to save face
After being "snubbed" by most of the field, says Steve Kornacki at Salon, this was Trump's best exit strategy. He couldn't admit "that the majority of GOP candidates calculated that Trump's mere presence would turn the debate into a stature-diminishing farce." Nor could he acknowledge that his failure "signified how little actual clout he has in politics." So he tried to turn his weakness into strength, by insisting that the candidates are avoiding him out of fear, not because he's a joke.
2. And he wants revenge
Once it became clear that Gingrich and Santorum would be the only participants, says DeWayne Wickham at USA Today, "Donald Trump started plotting revenge." Of course, "he's bluffing" about an independent bid — with his giant ego, Trump couldn't "stomach the possibility of finishing a distant third" in a national election. But Trump is using his "troublesome grandstanding" about a third-party bid to drive a wedge between mainstream Republicans (who loathe Trump) and extreme conservatives (who love Trump). And make no mistake: That schism "endangers the party's chances of retaking the White House."
3. The Donald knows a skimpy debate would hurt his brand
"Apparently, even Donald Trump realized that being seen at the Donald Trump Newsmax debate might damage his credibility," says Alexandra Petri at The Washington Post. His "mind-boggling" explanation — America might need him to come to the rescue if the GOP nominates a loser — was shockingly delusional "given that the simplest recipe for making America great is for Donald Trump not to run for anything." But no excuse is too phony if it gets you out of "a practically one-on-one evening with Rick Santorum."
4. Maybe he really does plan to run
"I'm relieved the Donald has relinquished his show-stopping role as a debate moderator," says Tina Korbe at Hot Air. "But I'm also a little perturbed that, by refusing to participate in the debate and forcing Trump to this conclusion, the Republican candidates have effectively resurrected the menace of an independent run by Trump." Is he likely to do it? No. But if he does, Republicans are fooling themselves it they think he is so insignificant that he won't split the anti-Obama vote.