DES MOINES, Iowa — There was no last minute change of heart from Donald TrumpDonald TrumpGeorge W. Bush: 'I don’t like the racism’ Trump budget may cut State dept. anti-Semitism positions: report Trump: It’s ‘better’ I skip WH dinner MORE, who held firm to his boycott of the Republican debate here on Thursday evening.
That left the seven candidates on the main stage trying to outdo each other while also seeking to land some punches on a phantom: the absent Trump.
With just four days left before the Iowa caucuses, how did it all shake out?
Businessman Donald Trump
The GOP front-runner was taking a big gamble by declining to participate in the debate. If one of his rivals — especially Ted CruzTed CruzCruz, Lee, Paul demand 'full repeal' of ObamaCare Dem senator: Confirm Gorsuch, Garland simultaneously THE MEMO: Trump takes the fight to Congress MORE — had hit a few pitches out of the park, Trump’s absence could have seemed like an act of gross political negligence.
That didn’t happen. Cruz offered an indifferent performance. Marco RubioMarco RubioRubio moves to name street outside Russian embassy after slain opposition leader THE MEMO: Trump takes the fight to Congress Rubio says town halls designed for people to 'heckle and scream' MORE did better overall but struggled in one of the debate’s most memorable moments — a prolonged exchange over immigration reform.
In a more general sense, too, the debate was simply less compelling without Trump — love him or loathe him.
Co-moderator Megyn Kelly described the mogul in the debate’s opening moments as “the elephant not in the room,” and his absence loomed over the entirety of proceedings.
That will be just fine with him.
Sen. Marco Rubio (Fla.)
Rubio didn’t have any clear-cut breakout moment, but he had a better night than Cruz, which is strategically important for him.
Rubio’s appeal is rooted in his perceived strength as a general election candidate, and he made sure to target Democratic front-runner Hillary ClintonHillary Rodham ClintonNew DNC chair Perez will attend Trump's speech as former rival's guest Dem questions FBI chief's commitment to Russia review Issa backs special prosecutor on Russia if justified MORE and President Obama frequently.
He got in some jabs at Cruz that scored points, even if none of them were knockouts. On national security, for example, he said, "the only budget that Ted has ever voted for is a budget that Rand PaulRand PaulCruz, Lee, Paul demand 'full repeal' of ObamaCare Top House conservatives won't back draft ObamaCare replacement Freedom Caucus chair says he'd vote against draft ObamaCare replacement MORE sponsored that brags about cutting defense spending."
On another occasion, after Cruz quibbled with moderators and then awkwardly joked that he would leave the stage if they continued with “mean” questions, Rubio said, “Don’t worry, I’m not leaving the stage no matter what you ask me.”
Rubio’s strong night came with a big asterisk, however. His efforts to defend himself on his key vulnerability — his past support for a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants — were far from sure-footed. He came off badly against Jeb Bush in particular.
Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush
Bush supporters must rue the fact that it’s taken him so long to deliver on the debate stage. The former Florida governor has been on an upswing since his stumbling early showings, and he was more vigorous and relaxed than ever before on Thursday evening.
Bush still has his wonky moments — his argument that fiscally ailing Puerto Rico needs to undergo structural reform was not exactly red meat.
But his central allegation against Rubio’s approach to immigration reform — “you shouldn’t cut and run” — hit the mark. When Rubio sought to counter by saying that his fellow Floridian had changed his own position on the issue, a smiling Bush responded, "So did you." It was his single best moment.
Bush is so far behind in polls that his fate may be sealed. But it was a good night for him nonetheless.
Sen. Ted Cruz (Texas)
Cruz suffered no catastrophe, but the debate was a missed opportunity for him.
He seemed to struggle with the dynamic of being center-stage for the first time, and his tendency to quibble with the moderators is so pronounced that it plays to his disadvantage.
The crowd in general seemed resistant to Cruz’s charms, as some attack lines — and occasional attempts at levity — fell flat.
There is no reason to believe Cruz did anything to cause his chances to truly crater. But he is now almost 7 points behind Trump in the RealClearPolitics (RCP) polling average in Iowa.
He will need to depend on his ground game to overcome that deficit, because his performance on Thursday evening didn’t do the job.
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie
Christie is a strong debater, and he showed that once again.
His basic strategy is now familiar — he highlights his experience as a governor and contrasts that with rivals who are members of Congress, whom he disparages as mere talkers. He also asserts his strength as a general election candidate.
There is nothing wrong with that strategy, and Christie executes it proficiently every time. The problem, however, is that its familiarity robs it of some of its power. There is also very little evidence that the New Jersey governor has catapulted himself into contention, even in New Hampshire, the state on which all his hopes seem to depend.
Still, his tendency to talk directly to voters rather than getting involved in what he disdainfully termed “parliamentary tricks” is a real strength.
Sen. Rand Paul (Ky.)
Paul’s campaign overall has been underwhelming, but this was one of his most effective debate performances.
Back on the main stage after sitting out the last clash rather than appear in the undercard debate, he underscored his differences with most of the rest of the field on policy issues. In one memorable example, he talked about the need for the GOP to be more responsive to issues of racial inequities in the criminal justice system.
He also got off some cutting personal jabs. His distaste for Cruz was clearly evident when he said of the Texan senator, “Everybody he knows is not as perfect as him.”
Paul is too far down in the polls to be resurrected. But this was a strong showing nevertheless.
Ohio Gov. John Kasich
Kasich’s ambitions are pinned on the idea that he can perform strongly in New Hampshire, which votes on Feb. 9. Kasich has recently been rising in the polls there and is now in third place.
He struggled to really make his presence felt at the debate, however, and some of his assertions — such as that there is “a Kasich lane” in this year’s GOP primary — came across as forced. He also appeared to suggest that the subject of encryption of communications is so inherently sensitive that it can barely be discussed in public.
Kasich’s supporters insist he is one of the most substantive contenders, but he also tends to offer up too many head-scratching moments on the debate stage.
Retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson
Carson has been sinking in the polls and was almost invisible on Thursday evening. Huge stretches of the debate passed without him saying anything at all. His most memorable moment was a lengthy recitation of the preamble to the U.S. Constitution at the debate’s close.
It seems a very long time ago since Carson led the polling averages in Iowa. After Thursday night, the end could be near.