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Republicans debate without Trump but still compete with him

Analysis: Ask not who won the debate but who won the TV screen

As seven Republican presidential hopefuls took to the stage in Des Moines, Iowa, Thursday night, just four days before votes are cast in the state’s first-in-the-nation caucuses, political observers got a glimpse of an answer to a question they have been asking for many months: What would the GOP race look like without Donald Trump?

It’s a fun — if not entirely useful — thought exercise, and it makes the postdebate analysis fairly easy (and, if you look at most of the postdebate coverage, fairly unified): Without Trump, the ringmaster of what Florida Sen. Marco Rubio called “the greatest show on earth,” the circus seemed workmanlike and relatively fireworks-free. Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, who is polling roughly on par with Trump in Iowa, took over the center ring, coming off as perhaps more commanding but not any more congenial.

Rubio, once seen by some in his party as the future, got a little more time to argue for relevance in the present. Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul could return to being the contrarian, highlighting his distrust of government surveillance and foreign military intervention, while Ohio Gov. John Kasich — who, though on an Iowa stage, was really speaking to voters in New Hampshire — got to play the role of pragmatic coalition builder.

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie was, for once, the dominant tough-talking Easterner in the room — taking the easiest path, invoking 9/11 and hard-line anti-abortion language to show the GOP base he’s no East Coast RINO (Republican in name only). And Jeb Bush, the former Florida governor and former establishment favorite, exhibited flashes of the level-headed, traditionally conservative candidate his party thought he’d be before Trump got under his skin.

And retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson ... recited the preamble to the Constitution.

During this Trumpless debate, the reports will tell you, issues prevailed over invective. Cruz started the evening with a joke, insulting himself and the other candidates on stage as a hat tip to the absent GOP front-runner, but with that out of the way, candidates got to argue who was tougher on immigration, who believed in a stronger military, who really would slash the budget and who could most absolutely and completely defund Planned Parenthood.

But interlaced with all that policy were numerous references to “the elephant not in the room,” as Fox News debate moderator Megyn Kelly called Trump. The candidates — especially Cruz and Bush — appeared compelled to speak Trump’s name, as if without this season’s dominant player, the others were not capable of articulating their own not-Trump political brand. And their positions on the issues often existed as counterpoints to Trump’s post-policy proclamations. In the end, although each of the presidential candidates who did attend got more time in the game, they were all still playing on Trump’s field.

And the battle between Kelly and Trump, which at least in part appears to have led to his skipping the Thursday debate, shows just how much the goalposts have moved.

There was a time when Republicans crossed Fox News at their own peril. Look back at the 2012 or 2008 cycles and you will see a parade of GOP hopefuls dutifully appearing on Fox programs. Look back only as far as last summer and you will see many in the current crop of presidential candidates jockeying for position in a previous Fox-sponsored debate. Look at a 2015 study from Harvard’s Shorenstein Center and you will see how big a role the conservative cable network played in enforcing hard-line, no-compromise edicts during legislative battles in Congress.

Even Trump once found himself working hand in glove with Fox as his political notoriety and the network’s ratings grew while both elevated questions about Barack Obama’s birth certificate from marginal conspiracy theory to mainstream news story.

But now, as the Republican establishment continues to search for a way to take down the man leading most GOP presidential opinion polls, Trump has almost singlehandedly caused a rupture at its most trusted media network. He didn’t just pull out of Thursday’s debate; he scheduled a competing rally, one that he said would raise money for veterans’ groups — though all donations to his hastily registered event website will first go to the Donald J. Trump Foundation, which has yet to confirm any specific recipients for the money.

Postdebate stories are not following that money, nor are they, in the final analysis, really following up on the claims and proposals of those who attended the debate. The idea that the debate was some sort of peek at a Trumpless Valhalla quickly gave way to what seemed the more pressing question, Who won the split screen?

And the answer there, too, seemed nearly universal.

The night was never free of Trump — the issues debated long ago defined by him, Thursday’s TV screens thoroughly dominated by him. Contemplating a race without Trump was more spin than inquiry. With no official media sponsor, the leading candidate still loomed large, leaving the other seven dwarfed.

The final proof, as always, will be in the voting. Ronald Reagan skipped a candidates’ debate right before the Iowa caucuses in 1980 and lost that state to George H.W. Bush. In 2000, George W. Bush dodged a pair of debates in advance of the New Hampshire primary, and John McCain won going away.

Of course, Reagan and George W. Bush wound up the nominees in those years, so those debate snubs were all but forgotten. The situation this election cycle — in so many ways — appears to be very different.

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