Just how strange the Republican presidential race has gotten was on full display in Iowa’s capital Thursday, when the last debate before voting begins was held without the party’s front-runner.
Donald Trump boycotted the FOX News Channel debate in Des Moines, holding a rival fundraiser for military veterans not far from the hall where seven of his opponents took the stage for the first time without him.
Despite his absence, Trump loomed large.
In her very first question, moderator Megyn Kelly — Trump’s bogeywoman — asked his chief competitor, Ted Cruz, to weigh in on “the elephant not in the room tonight.”
The Texas senator had an answer ready.
“I’m a maniac and everyone on this stage is stupid, fat and ugly. And Ben, you’re a terrible surgeon,” he told retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson. “Now that we’ve gotten the Donald Trump portion out of the way…”
“I kind of miss Donald Trump,” former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, whom Trump famously labeled “low-energy,” said with a wry smile. “He was a little teddy bear to me. We always had such a loving relationship in these debates…. I kind of miss him. I wish he was here.”
I kind of miss Donald Trump. He was a little teddy bear to me.
Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush
Even Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, who studiously avoids mentioning Trump on the campaign trail, brought him up unprompted: “Let’s begin by being clear what this campaign is about: It’s not 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 made America special.”
Cruz relished being the center of attention, at least at first. But he lost his hold on the debate when he debated rules with moderator Chris Wallace — and delivered an apparently scripted line that fell flat.
“Gosh, if you guys ask one more mean question, I may have to leave the stage,” he threatened. The audience of about 1,600 at the Iowa Events Center, which was friendlier toward Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, jeered.
“Don’t worry, I’m not leaving the stage no matter what you ask me,” Rubio quipped.
Sans Trump, the debate was decidedly slower, more predictable and less entertaining. The seven men on stage, though, appeared more relaxed. They got questions they hadn’t gotten before — Bush about Puerto Rico’s shaky finances, for example, and Rubio about cap-and-trade for carbon emissions — and engaged in lengthy exchanges about issues like immigration reform.
FOX News tried a new, effective approach to asking some questions. It showed Rubio video clips of his past statements on immigration — his Achilles heel among the most conservative voters — before asking him about them.
He defended his complicated position on giving most immigrants in the country illegally a path to U.S. citizenship. That created an opening for Bush — who speaks even more sympathetically about immigration than Rubio does — to nevertheless criticize his fellow Floridian for backing off the 2013 Senate bill Rubio co-sponsored and Bush supported.
This is the lie that Ted’s campaign is built on, that he’s the most conservative guy and everyone else is a RINO.
“He led the charge, and then he cut and run, because it wasn’t popular among conservatives, I guess,” Bush shot, citing his book, Immigration Wars, that proposes a path to legalization but not citizenship — which Rubio had backed before.
“That is the book where you changed your position on immigration,” Rubio retorted.
“So did you,” Bush said. “So did you, Marco.”
(Later, when Bush was asked about how his allied super PAC has targeted Rubio with ads, Bush didn’t apologize: “It’s called politics, and that’s the way it is, and I’m running hard.”)
Rubio also took immigration fire from Cruz, who likes to cast the GOP race as a two-man contest between himself and Trump. Yet Cruz started airing a new Iowa TV ad Thursday blasting Rubio on immigration, and on the debate stage he again accused Rubio of endorsing “amnesty.”
“This is the lie that Ted’s campaign is built on, that he’s the most conservative guy and everyone else is a RINO,” Rubio countered, using the acronym for Republican in name only. “Ted, throughout this campaign, you’ve been willing to say or do anything in order to get votes.”
The crowd booed.
“I like Marco. He’s very charming. He’s very smooth,” Cruz said on stage. “But the facts are simple. He ran for election in the state of Florida and told the people in Florida, ‘If you elect me I will lead the fight against amnesty.’ When I ran in Texas, I told the people of Texas, ‘If you elect me, I will lead the fight against amnesty.’ We both made the identical promises. But when we came to Washington, we made a different choice.”
The one to put an end to it was New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie.
“I need a Washington/English dictionary,” he joked. “Stop the Washington bull and let’s get things done.”
Miami Herald Political Writer Patricia Mazzei is in Iowa for the caucuses. Follow her on Facebook and Twitter: @PatriciaMazzei