Politics, like nature, abhors a vacuum, and with Republican presidential frontrunner Donald Trump’s decision to boycott the final debate before the Iowa caucuses, the GOP’s other top-tier candidates scrambled to take advantage of the billionaire’s absence.
Of the seven contenders on stage in Des Moines, Sens. Ted Cruz (TX) and Marco Rubio (FL) tried their best to fill the void by Trump. But never quite caught fire as they had in previous debates in large part because they didn’t have the former reality TV star and his outrageous statements to serve as a foil.
Fox News anchor Megyn Kelly, who has become the focal point in the running feud between her network and Trump, began Thursday’s debate by asking Cruz to address “the elephant not in the room.”
“I’m a maniac and everyone on this stage is stupid, fat and ugly,” Cruz replied. “Now that we've gotten the Donald Trump portion out of the way” he turned to thanking the people of Iowa for their hospitality.
“Let’s begin by being clear about what this campaign is about,” Rubio said. “It’s not about Donald Trump. He’s an entertaining guy. He’s the greatest show on earth. This campaign is about the greatest country in the world and a president who has systematically destroyed many of the things that have made this country special.”
But aside from brief mentions in exchanges about immigration, Trump and his anti-debate event across town were a non-factor.
In many ways the debate was a glimpse of what the race could have been like if Trump had stayed out, with each contender getting a chance to talk about in-the-weeds policy topics as Puerto Rico’s debt, data encryption and the ongoing water crisis in Flint, Michigan.
The lion’s share of the questions went to, Cruz, who could beat Trump in next week’s caucuses, according to some polls. He was put on the spot about his claims that he would “carpet bomb” ISIS forces and his decision not to vote on legislation proposed by a rival, Sen. Rand Paul (KY) to audit the Federal Reserve.
Cruz, standing center stage, took so much incoming fire that he turned to a tried and true tactic: arguing with the debate’s moderators about the rules.
"If you guys ask one more mean question; I may have to leave the stage,” he said, half in jest.
Rubio chimed in: “Don’t worry, I’m not leaving the stage no matter what you ask me.”
Immigration, which aside from national security is the most divisive issue for many GOP primary voters, prompted the night’s longest exchange, with the moderators playing video montages of Rubio and Cruz talking.
Rubio and Cruz tried to paint the other as a political opportunist that has changed his position in order to garner votes.
"This is the lie that Ted’s campaign is built on. That he’s the most conservative guy and that everyone else is a RINO. The truth is, Ted, throughout this campaign you’ve been willing to say whatever you can to get elected," Rubio said. “Now, you want to trump Trump on immigration; but we’re not going to beat Hillary Clinton with someone who’s willing to say or do anything to win an election.”
“You know, I like Marco, he’s very charming, he’s very smooth, but the facts are simple,” Cruz replied. “Marco made the choice to follow the direction of the political donors to support amnesty because he thought it was politically advantageous."
The back and forth became more muddled when former Florida Governor Jeb Bush entered the fray. He accused Rubio of having “cut and run” after backing Senate legislation that would have granted millions of illegal immigrants a path to legal status or citizenship. Bush left it to New Jersey Governor Chris Christie – as he had done in previous debates – to chide both senators.
“Stop the Washington bull and let’s get things done,” Christie admonished.
Aside from Cruz and Rubio, Paul had his best debate yet, giving thoughtful responses to questions about criminal justice reform and even President Bill Clinton’s adultery.
As for Bush, he and Ohio Governor John Kasich avoided making self-inflicted errors, which is good enough for now since neither expects to win the Hawkeye State. Both have focused their attention on the nation’s first primary in New Hampshire on Feb. 9, hoping a win there by an “establishment” candidate will blunt the Trump juggernaut.
Retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson delivered his worst debate performance to date. He rarely spoke and expressed genuine surprise when the moderators called on him to answer a question. When he did speak, he gave rambling answers. Asked what he would do as president if Russia seized a city in Estonia, a NATO ally, Carson gave an incoherent response.
Russian President Vladimir Putin “is a one-horse country: oil and energy. We ought to fight them on that level,” Carson said at one point.
He later recited the Preamble to the Constitution as his closing statement, a move that elicited some groans from the audience.
Rubio, who observers believe is angling to come in third next Monday, closed with a canned pitch, which would "unite this party and defeat Hillary Clinton." He recited his campaign theme that the “21st century will be a new American century."
Cruz, by contrast, appealed directly to Iowans.
“The media noise will soon be over,” he said, warning caucus-goers not to buy into the attacks by his rivals.
Cruz urged voters to look at each candidate’s record and “pray on it.”