Absent Trump overshadows rivals

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DES MOINES, Iowa — Donald TrumpDonald TrumpFive takeaways from New Hampshire Senate debate Trump losing cash race in final weeks Vulnerable GOP senator questions opponent's American heritage MORE dominated the Republican presidential debate in his absence Thursday night, as his rivals hit at one another without a runaway winner emerging.

The debate was heated at times, especially between Sens. Ted CruzTed CruzDemocrats pounce on Cruz's Supreme Court comments Brent Budowsky: An epic battle for the future of Congress Cruz: Precedent exists for keeping Supreme Court short-staffed MORE (Texas) and Marco Rubio (Fla.), who run second and third in polling averages to Trump both nationally and in Iowa. But the “elephant not in the room,” as the business mogul was described in the opening moments by his nemesis, Fox News co-moderator Megyn Kelly, cast a shadow from which none of his competitors fully escaped.

The extra podium that Fox News said it had readied for a last-minute change of heart from the real estate magnate was unused. Instead, he went ahead with a separate event at Drake University, less than a 10-minute drive from the debate at the Iowa Events Center in Des Moines.

Cruz, who was invited by Kelly to address Trump’s absence in the opening moments, offered a mocking but slightly awkward imitation of the front-runner.

He first said with a straight face, “I’m a maniac and everyone on this stage is stupid, fat and ugly,” before adding, “Now that we’ve gotten the Donald Trump portion out of the way, I want to thank everyone here.” 

Emphasizing the delicate line that Trump’s adversaries have to walk, however, Cruz was immediately asked about the much warmer words he had offered earlier in the campaign. The Texan had praised Trump many times until recently, in a gambit that many observers felt was geared toward picking up Trump supporters if they lost interest in the billionaire.

“I have not insulted Donald personally and I don’t intend to,” Cruz said, adding that Trump “has produced enormous enthusiasm.” Addressing GOP voters currently backing the outspoken businessman, Cruz added, “I hope to earn your support.”

Those words may have sat strangely for some viewers in juxtaposition to his mocking only moments before.

Cruz, however, also sought to frame Trump’s absence as a mark of disrespect to Iowans — a line of attack that some Hawkeye State observers believe is the most promising one.

Rubio, for his part, sought to portray the Trump furor as a sideshow and immediately pivoted to his case that he is the strongest candidate to take on Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton in November’s presidential election.

The debate, which came with only four days to go before Iowans caucus, proceeded along predictable lines for much of its two-hour duration. The most tense — and perhaps most telling — exchanges came on illegal immigration, when both Rubio and Cruz were confronted with video footage in which they appeared to support more moderate positions than they currently espouse.

Neither man seemed entirely self-assured in rebutting those attacks. Rubio came off the worse in an exchange with former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, his one-time mentor. 

Bush acknowledged that he had supported Rubio’s earlier push for legislation that included a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants. But he also complained that Rubio had “cut and run” when he realized his position was politically unpopular with large swathes of the GOP base.

Bush, who has received widespread criticism for his performances in earlier debates, had one of his most memorable moments whenever Rubio sought to rebut him by saying the former governor had changed his position on reform.

“So did you,” a smiling Bush shot back, apparently discomfiting Rubio. 

Cruz did not fare noticeably better in his defense of videoed comments in which he framed an amendment he was offering to the Rubio-backed legislation as something that would help the bill pass. 

Cruz now casts his efforts as intended to introduce a "poison pill" to defeat the overall bill, emphasizing that staunch opponents of liberalizing reforms, including Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) and Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa), backed him.

The well-known tensions between Cruz and his Senate colleagues showed themselves more openly than ever before as the exchange ground on, with both Rubio and Sen. Rand PaulRand PaulWhat the 'Bernie Sanders wing of the GOP' can teach Congress GOP senators avoid Trump questions on rigged election How low is the bar for presidential candidates, anyway? MORE (R-Ky.) attacking him for a perceived sanctimoniousness. 

“Everybody he knows is not as perfect as him,” Paul said, with obvious sarcasm.

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie also jumped in to assail both Rubio and Cruz for hiding “behind parliamentary tricks.” Christie, combative as usual, added, “Stop the Washington bull, and let’s get things done!”

Christie and Paul both got their share of strong moments in the debate, with the governor offering pointed attacks on Clinton, and Paul arguing that the GOP needed to be more inclusive — such as, for example, exhibiting a greater willingness to address perceived inequities in the criminal justice system.

But retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson, who has been declining in the polls, struggled to make his presence felt for long stretches. The same was true for Ohio Gov. John Kasich, who is struggling in Iowa even though his poll ratings have been on the rise in New Hampshire, which votes on Feb. 9.

It will be Trump’s team who may well be breathing a sigh of relief as to how the debate developed, however. 

In the early moments of the debate, Rubio had described the tycoon as “an entertaining guy...the greatest show on earth.”

The remark was meant disparagingly. But the debate’s lack of sparkle testified to the fact that it contained more than a grain of truth.