Bookies say Trump's chances of being president up to 20pc
Donald Trump has a one-in-five chance of winning the US presidential race, according to a leading UK online bookmaker.
His prospects of becoming president have risen from 12pc 10 days ago, after $157,400 (€143,000) was bet on the billionaire, Matchbook betting exchange said yesterday.
Traditional bookmakers give him an even better chance. Paddy Power Plc, for example, offers odds of 3-1, or 25pc, on a Trump victory. Hillary Clinton is 10-11 to win, giving her a 48pc chance of victory.
Whatever about the betting, it was set to be a case of Hamlet without the prince in last night's debate.
The billionaire's move to skip the showdown, which began at 2am Irish time, days before Iowa holds the first nominating contest of the 2016 election, was a calculated risk gamble.
After he said he was boycotting the Fox News-sponsored debate because of a feud with host Megyn Kelly, rivals accused him of being too afraid to face them on stage.
While some of Trump's fans were supportive of his decision, several undecided voters said they were unimpressed.
"I was on Trump's doorstep until this whole thing happened. I was disappointed," said Bryan Moon of West Des Moines, Iowa, who was attending an event for Republican Marco Rubio.
"If this is how he's going to act, that 'I'm taking my ball and going home', then that is just not going to work."
Voter Jill Ruby, another West Des Moines resident at the Rubio event, was equally put out by Trump's decision.
"Are you kidding me, a reporter ticked him off?" she said. "He's a coward. I think it will come back and bite him. That's not how a president acts, you don't just run away."
Although Trump leads polls of Iowa Republicans over US Senator Ted Cruz of Texas, many voters remain undecided and were looking to the debate to aid their decision-making.
"It gives people a reason to be disappointed in him and take a look at the other candidates," said Republican strategist Charlie Black.
"It could hurt him with people who might be undecided."
Trump planned to hold a fundraiser for veterans at Drake University in Des Moines at the same time as the Fox debate, according to an invitation circulated by his campaign.
Early yesterday, Trump tweeted: "Wow, two candidates called last night and said they want to go to my event tonight at Drake University." He did not elaborate and there was no word from other candidates about plans to join the front-runner.
Trump's rivals were viewing the debate as a chance to get their own messages across without having to compete with Trump's bomb-throwing rhetoric.
"It gives us more time at the microphone and more time to talk about answers to substantive issues that Iowa voters are demanding right now," said David Kochel, a senior adviser to Republican candidate Jeb Bush.
On the down side, the number of people tuning in could be lower without Trump at centre stage. "It is undeniable that what he's doing is denying his opponents a large audience as they make their final arguments to Iowa voters," said Eric Fehrnstrom, a Republican strategist who advised the party's 2012 nominee, Mitt Romney.
Trump's decision to stage a benefit event to help military veterans instead of participating in the debate was welcomed by some supporters.
Pat Wiltfang (59), of Grinnell, Iowa, a lifelong Republican who had watched all the previous debates, said she was pleased with Trump's decision and would gladly skip this one.
"That's a great move," said Wiltfang, who plans to caucus for Trump. "All it is is just everyone trying to attack."
Campaigning on Wednesday in West Des Moines, Cruz mocked Trump for skipping the debate, calling him a "fragile soul". He renewed his offer to Trump to debate him one-on-one Saturday.
"It's not that he's afraid of me," Cruz told the crowd. "He's afraid of you. He doesn't want to answer questions from the men and women of Iowa about how his record doesn't match what he's selling."
But no one would have been shocked if Trump changed his mind about the debate.
"I've got a $20 bet he'll show up," rival Jeb Bush said. Why? "Because it's in his interests."