Republican presidential candidates strained to take advantage of a rare opportunity to step out of Donald Trump's shadow in Thursday night's presidential debate — a policy-heavy contest that offered a glimpse of what the GOP contest might have been without the unpredictable businessman — after mocking the front-runner for boycotting the final contest before voting begins.
Angry over an escalating feud with debate host Fox News, Trump held what his team is calling a “Special Event to Benefit Veterans Organizations” at a 775-seat auditorium at nearby Drake University instead. The event attracted Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee and former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, GOP hopefuls who appeared in the undercard debate prior to the main event because of low ratings.
Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, who is locked in a tight contest with Trump in Iowa, opened the debate with a sarcastic impression of the real estate mogul's frequent insults of his opponents.
“I'm a maniac and everyone on this stage is stupid, fat and ugly,” Cruz said, before thanking his fellow candidates for showing Iowa voters respect by showing up.
Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, a frequent target of Trump, said with a wry smile, “I kind of miss Donald Trump; he was a teddy bear to me.”
Trump's absence put the spotlight on Cruz, as well as on Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, who needs a strong showing in Iowa in order to stay in the top tier of candidates.
The two senators were confronted with video clips suggesting they had changed their positions on immigration, one of the most contentious issues among Republicans.
While each insisted the other had flip-flopped, both denied they had switched their own views allowing some people in the U.S. illegally to stay.
Cruz accused Rubio of making a “politically advantageous” decision to support a 2013 Senate bill that included a pathway to citizenship, while the Florida senator said his rival was "willing to say or do anything to get votes."
In a rare standout debate moment for Bush, the former Florida governor sharply sided with Cruz in accusing Rubio of having “cut and run” on the Senate immigration bill.
“He cut and ran because it wasn't popular with conservatives,” Bush said.
In a video, YouTube personality Dulce Candy, an Iraq war veteran and entrepreneur who came to this country from Mexico as a child, appeared before the candidates via YouTube and said “some of the comments in this campaign make us question our place in this country.”
She specifically asked if the U.S. economy would suffer if immigrant entrepreneurs don't feel welcomed.
Bush applauded Candy and said she “deserves our respect” and "we should be a welcoming nation."
Rubio said, “we will always celebrate legal immigrants,” but the legal immigration system is outdated.
With their White House hopes on the line, the candidates worked hard to cast themselves as best prepared to be commander in chief and take on terror threats emanating both from abroad and within the United States.
Rubio struck an aggressive posture, pledging that as president he would go after terrorists “wherever they are. And if we capture them alive, they are going to Guantanamo.” Rubio also stood by his previous calls for shutting down mosques in the U.S if there were indications that the Muslim religious centers were being used to radicalize terrorists.
Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul — back on the main debate stage after being downgraded to an undercard event because of low poll numbers earlier this month — warned against closing down mosques. A proponent of a more isolationist foreign policy, Paul also raised concerns about the U.S. getting involved militarily in Syria, where the Islamic State group has a stronghold.
The candidates largely sidestepped direct confrontations with each other, focusing some of their most pointed attacks on Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton.
Paul defended Clinton from those who would blame her for sticking with her husband former President Bill Clinton because of his infidelity and subsequent impeachment, saying, “I don't think she's responsible for his behavior.”
Paul added that if any CEO did what the former president did “with a 21-year-old intern,” he would be fired and “shunned in their community.”
Paul said Hillary Clinton “can't be a champion of women's rights” with her husband's legacy hanging around her neck.
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie said “She is not qualified to be president of the United States. … What we need is someone on that stage who has been tested who has been through it.”
Libya, said Christie, is an example why Clinton “cannot be commander-in-chief” because she failed to answer questions posed in a previous Democratic debate about her responsibility for Benghazi.
Republicans have hammered Clinton for her role in dealing with the 2012 attacks on a U.S. diplomatic compound in Benghazi, Libya.
Christie said Clinton “refuses to be held accountable for anything that goes wrong.”
Christie is part of a crowded field of more mainstream candidates who have struggled to break through in an election year where Trump, and increasingly Cruz, have tapped into voter anger with the political system.
Party leaders have grown increasingly antsy for some of the more traditional candidates to step aside after the first contests to allow one to rise up and challenge for the nomination.
Asked whether the crowded establishment lane was putting Trump in position to be the nominee, Bush said, “We're just starting out. The first vote hasn't been counted. Why don't we let the process work?”
Bush also defended the flurry of critical advertisements his well-funded super PAC has launched against Rubio and other rivals.
“It's called politics,” Bush said. “That's the way it is. I'm running hard.”
Bush and Christie, along with Ohio Gov. John Kasich, are looking beyond Iowa and hoping New Hampshire's Feb. 9 primary jumpstarts their campaigns. In an election where a lengthy political resume has been a liability, Kasich defended government's ability to tackle big problems.
“We serve you,” Kasich said of government officials and voters. “You don't serve us. We listen to you and then we act.”
Underscoring the divide between the GOP establishment and outsider candidates, Cruz proudly claimed he was “not the candidate of career politicians in Washington.” Retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson, who has a small but loyal base in Iowa, said that even though he hasn't made government choices, he's made plenty of life-and-death decisions during his career as a doctor.
“I don't think you need to be a politician to tell the truth,” said Carson, who read the Preamble to the Constitution as his closing statement.
The Associated Press