There was a massive Donald Trump-shaped hole on the Republican debate stage in Des Moines last night, much to the dismay of viewers who eagerly hoped that the Republican frontrunner would show up despite announcing earlier this week that he would boycott the event.
Trump kept his word following his spat with Fox News and its anchor Megyn Kelly, whom he had accused of being biased against him as a moderator in a previous debate. He steered clear of the contest, opting instead to hold a local fundraiser for veterans groups that he later claimed had raised more than $6 million.
Yet despite his absence at the debate, Trump still managed to dominate the discussion onstage.
"Before we get to the issues, let's address the elephant not in the room tonight," Kelly remarked at the outset to Texas Senator Ted Cruz, asking him how he felt about Trump's absence. Cruz, who is currently polling neck and neck to Trump in Iowa, tried unsuccessfully to move on.
"Let me say I'm a maniac and everyone on this stage is stupid, fat, and ugly," Cruz responded before turning to Ben Carson. "And Ben, you're a terrible surgeon. Now that we've gotten the Donald Trump portion out of the way…"
Thursday was Cruz's last chance in a major public forum make his pitch to Iowa voters before they caucus on Monday. But for all of the praise that pundits have heaped on his skills as a debater, Cruz did not emerge as the winner. The Fox moderators pummeled Cruz over his stance opposing ethanol subsidies in Iowa, flip-flopping in the Senate, and even directly questioned him whether he would hurt the Republican Party in later elections if he became the nominee.
As the only frontrunner on the stage, Cruz was in for it.
"Chris, I would note that that the last four questions have been, 'Rand, please attack Ted. Marco, please attack Ted. Chris, please attack Ted. Jeb, please attack Ted'…" Cruz griped at moderator Chris Wallace at one point.
"It is a debate, sir," Wallace replied.
"Well, no, no," persisted Cruz. "A debate actually is a policy issue, but I will say this. Gosh, if you guys ask one more mean question I may have to leave the stage."
Cruz won points at a debate hosted by CNBC in October when he confronted the moderators on their line of questioning, saying dismissively, "Everyone home tonight knows that the moderators have no intention of voting in a Republican primary." But he couldn't do the same on Thursday, and his fight with the moderators did not endear him to voters, according to veteran Republican pollster Frank Luntz.
Florida Senator Marco Rubio, who is currently trailing behind Trump and Cruz in third place in the polls, joined the anti-Cruz pile-on.
"This is the lie Ted's campaign is built on… that he's the most conservative guy," said Rubio, in reference to Cruz's changing stance on immigration. "The truth is, Ted, throughout this campaign you've been willing to say or do anything in order to get votes."
Rand Paul, on the other hand, emerged as the crowd favorite of the night. The Kentucky senator had been relegated to the kiddie-table debate last time, which he boycotted, but was back on the main stage tonight. He scored points when discussing civil liberties, dinged Cruz for voting for blanket surveillance and missing a vote on auditing the Federal Reserve, and criticized Rubio for advocating the closing of mosques, saying the proposal violates the Constitution.
Paul's biggest moment came when a YouTube user asked him about his stance on police officers wearing body cameras.
Paul responded by bringing up racial profiling, discriminatory policing, and the war on drugs — topics that have rarely been challenged in previous Republican debates.
"The war on drugs has disproportionately affected our African-American community, and what we need to do is make sure that the war on drugs is equal protection under the law and that we don't unfairly incarcerate another generation of young African-American males," Paul responded, prompting wild applause form the audience. "Drug use is about equal between white and black, but our prisons — three out of four people in prison are black or brown. I think something has to change. I think it's a big thing that our party needs to be part of, and I've been a leader in Congress on trying to bring about criminal justice reform."
Rubio did not emerge from the night unscathed, especially when he was asked about his position favoring a pathway to citizenship program for undocumented immigrants. The junior senator fended off attacks from pretty much all directions on this question, but one particularly fiery exchange came from his former mentor, former Florida Governor Jeb Bush.
"I'm kind of confused because he was the sponsor of the Gang of Eight bill that did require a bunch of thresholds but ultimately allowed for citizenship over an extended period of time. I mean, that's a fact. And he asked me to support that. And I supported him," Bush said, referring to failed immigration reform sponsored by Rubio that was assailed from the right. "He led the charge to finally fix this immigration problem that has existed now for, as Marco says, for 30 years. And then he cut and run because it wasn't popular amongst conservatives, I guess."
"You changed your position on immigration because you used to support a path to citizenship," Rubio interjected, addressing Bush.
"So did you," Bush shot back.
"Well, but, you changed…" Rubio continued.
"Yeah. So did you, Marco," Bush deadpanned.
The Fox News moderators were intent on keeping the debate focused on substance and generally succeeded in doing so, with some awkward exceptions. When asked what he would do to counter the threat from Vladimir Putin in Russia, retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson responded by saying "Putin is a one-horse country: oil and energy." Twitter users quickly took him to task for that answer.
Carson successfully names all three Baltic countries but then says
— Andy Carvin (@acarvin)January 29, 2016
Carson has been through the desert on a horse with no name.
— Jeffrey Goldberg (@JeffreyGoldberg)January 29, 2016
When Islamic terrorism came up, Paul pointed out that the US has not stopped any acts of terrorism through bulk data collection programs and argued that citizens don't need to sacrifice civil liberties in the name of national security. The other candidates took a more hawkish stance.
"Radical Muslims and radical Islam is not just hate talk," he said. "It's hate action. They blow people up. Look what they did in San Bernardino."
Megyn Kelly asked New Jersey Governor Chris Christie how he would stop attacks such as last year's mass shooting in San Bernardino without racially profiling Muslims.
"You can do it without profiling, Megyn, when you do it on the facts," Christie responded. "That's not profiling, that's law enforcement."
Without Trump on stage, each of the candidates got more time to speak. Yet most of their responses were excerpts pulled from their stump speeches — or in Ben Carson's case, a verbatim recitation of the Preamble to the Constitution — rather than the tit-for-tat exchanges that the Republican debates have become known for in this primary race.
In the end, Thursday night's debate did little to change what we know already about the candidates or the current dynamics of the race. Trump once again demonstrated that he is not bound to the normal rules of campaigning, Ben Carson's knowledge of foreign policy is shaky at best, and Ted Cruz still can't get any of the other candidates to tolerate him.
Follow Olivia Becker on Twitter: @obecker928