Trump has dominated coverage of not just the Republican primary, but pretty much everything else since he entered the race in June.
Nearly everyone predicted that Trump would burn out by the end of the summer, returning the race to its rightful, less entertaining natural state. Cruz and Carson would trade the lead for a couple of months and maybe win Iowa, and then Rubio or Jeb! would ride this thing to the finish line. Trump, of course, is still around.
It’s hard to argue that the debates would be significantly different without Trump—they’d still mostly be about ISIS and immigration and the economy—but Trump has provided the fireworks and the curveballs, ratcheting up the rhetoric and forcing the debates themselves to be tests of his candidacy.
Trump’s absence promises that tonight’s debate will be about Trump, but it’ll also be a bit of speculative fan fiction: There will be moments tonight where, for the first time in seven months, we can imagine what the 2016 Republican primary would look like without the man who has been this election season’s Pied Piper.