Would he or wouldn't he? After a weekend of keeping the media guessing, Donald Trump has confirmed he will not attend the first Republican presidential primary debate taking place this Wednesday in Milwaukee.

For US politics watchers this is where the starting gun is fired on the 2024 race for the White House. The last such debate in 2015 drew a record audience of 24 million. 

But in a Truth Social post, Mr Trump wrote: “New CBS poll, just out, has me leading the field by ‘legendary’ numbers…I WILL THEREFORE NOT BE DOING THE DEBATES!"

The CBS poll had him on 62%, with Florida governor Ron DeSantis, his nearest rival, on 16%.

Instead of attending the debate Mr Trump is understood to have recorded an interview with former Fox News host Tucker Carlson. Their sit-down could air at the same time as the debate, drawing audiences away.

Hitting Fox where it hurts has its attractions for Mr Trump. His latest complaint is that the channel insists on using an unflattering photo of him.

READ MORE Trump and associates indicted in Georgia

His central objection to the debate has always been that he is so far ahead in the polls it would be demeaning for him to line up with the rest of a crowded field. He has a point about the gap. Most polls have him 50 or so points clear, with his nearest challengers struggling on single figures. 

From Mr Trump’s point of view he would be risking a lot by appearing, and for no real gain.

Should he change his mind and attend future debates the head-butting could be of a kind last seen in Jurassic Park. While most of the field would struggle to achieve name recognition outside their own family, there are one or two heavyweights who could land a blow on Mr Trump. Depending on whether they want to, that is.

Former New Jersey governor Chris Christie has staked a position as the anti-Trump Republican candidate. He is dangerous because he was once close to Trump and speaks from personal experience. Plus, like Trump, he is a street fighter.

The former president was mentor to Ron DeSantis for a while, until that relationship soured and Trump began calling the “family values” campaigner Ron DeSanctimonious.

READ MORE: DeSantis savaged in polls

DeSantis seemed to finally choose a side when he said recently that “of course” Trump lost the 2020 election.

Yet a strategy paper prepared for DeSantis, and obtained by the New York Times, advised the governor to attack Biden and the press, lay off Trump, and go after Ramaswamy.

The DeSantis campaign has been struggling for a while. A bad night on Wednesday is not make or break, not yet, but it could cost him dear.

To earn a spot in the line-up, candidates have to pass a series of tests set by the Republican hierarchy. These include having a certain number of donors, and a minimum score in recognised polls. They are also required to sign a pledge saying they will back the eventual nominee.

At the end of last week there were six names on the bill: Christie; DeSantis; Ramaswamy; Mike Pence, former vice president; Tim Scott, South Carolina senator; and ex-UN ambassador Nikki Haley. Mr Trump had qualified but not signed the pledge. 

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If it is tough keeping track of the Trump schedule now, imagine what it will be like once the four main legal cases against him begin in earnest. One trial after another, in different locations, requiring his presence. Meanwhile, the primary season continues. By the time of Super Tuesday on March 5, when the nomination race should be over bar the shouting, he could still have two more trials to go.

Little wonder his various legal teams want proceedings delayed till after the election. Postponement comes with the added attraction that, should he win, he can pardon himself – though not in the case of Georgia.

How will voters react to the sight of Mr Trump, 78 next June, tearing around the country from courtroom to campaign stop? Will he look like a victor-in-waiting, or a victim, and could that backfire on the Democrats?

In this strangest of tales the twists keep on coming.