Tale of the Tape: Did Trump Win by Skipping Republican Debate?

Trump on Debate Snub: Have to Stick Up For Your Rights
  • Cruz, Rubio exploit front-runner's absence to seek Iowa edge
  • Billionaire holds his own event after dispute with Fox News

Seven of the eight top-polling Republicans running for president debated the issues on the minds of Iowa voters, from immigration to terrorism. The eighth -– Donald Trump -– skipped the debate altogether and said he raised $6 million for veterans at a rival event where the crowd broke into cheers of “USA! USA!”

Trump may have had the better night.

He certainly had the energy on his side, inviting two of his rivals, Rick Santorum and Mike Huckabee, to his rally -- and they showed up.

A few miles away in Des Moines, Texas Senator Ted Cruz enjoyed the advantage of a Trump-free debate stage Thursday, just four days before the Iowa caucuses. Florida Senator Marco Rubio had his usual solid performance, and the only question left at the end of the night was whether the notoriously demanding Iowa voters –- used to have candidates at their beck and call –- would punish Trump for bailing.

Trump’s absence opened space for some harsh exchanges between Cruz and Rubio on issues from immigration to national security, with accusations flying of lies and broken commitments. The goal for both was to break through to an electorate that has doggedly supported Trump, despite an unconventional campaign.

Here is the Tale of the Tape of their closing arguments:

Satirizing Trump

Declaring yourself “a maniac” in the final debate before the Iowa caucuses would be a serious gaffe in most elections. But 2016 is no ordinary election, thanks to Trump’s influence.

Asked by Fox News moderator Megyn Kelly to address “the elephant not in the room,” Cruz jokingly channeled the boisterous billionaire who refused to show up because of a dispute with Kelly and the network.

“Let me say, I’m a maniac, and everyone on this stage is stupid, fat, and ugly,” the Texas senator quipped. “And Ben, you’re a terrible surgeon.”

Implicitly criticizing Trump, Cruz credited his opponents for “showing the men and women of Iowa the respect to show up and make the case to the people of this state and the people of the country why each of us believe we would make the best commander-in-chief.”

But Cruz went on to say he hoped to win over Trump’s supporters, and didn’t want to sling mud.

“I have not insulted Donald personally, and I don’t intend to,” Cruz said.

The other candidates weren’t so gentle. Rubio dismissed Trump as a circus-like “greatest show on Earth.” And former Florida Governor Jeb Bush said he should get credit for having been the first to take on Trump.

“Everybody else was in the witness protection program,” Bush said of his opponents.

Immigration as Cudgel

A question about immigration policy led to some of the sharpest attacks among the candidates -- with most of the criticism directed at Rubio and Cruz.

Fox News ignited the discussion with a pair of video montages that showed both senators seeming to have voiced support in the past for a pathway to citizenship for the approximately 11 million undocumented immigrants in the U.S.

That led the senators to accuse one another of telling voters one thing and doing the opposite.

“You’ve been willing to say or do anything” to win, Rubio said of Cruz. Rubio said Cruz’s campaign was built on "the lie" that he’s more conservative than other candidates. 

Cruz offered amendments to a bipartisan bill crafted by Rubio that would have offered legal status to some undocumented immigrants in the U.S. At the time, Cruz said he hoped to see the whole package pass.

"Now you want to trump Trump on immigration," Rubio continued. "But we’re not going to beat Hillary Clinton with someone who is willing to say or do anything to win an election."

Cruz shot back by saying Rubio had chosen to "stand with President Obama" with his work on the legislation. 

“He’s very smooth,” Cruz said of Rubio, but “I honor my commitments.”

Bush, who backed Rubio’s push for a bipartisan comprehensive immigration bill, said the Florida senator "cut and run because it wasn’t popular among conservatives." And Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky said Cruz had an “authenticity problem” that would plague him throughout the election.

New Jersey Governor Chris Christie said the mess underscored why voters should chose an outsider.

"I feel like I need a Washington-to-English dictionary” to explain their explanations, Christie said. 

“Stop the Washington bull,” he added.

Combating Terrorism

With Americans apprehensive about the threat of terrorism, the candidates competed to talk toughest in response to questions on foreign policy.

Rubio said he would send captured terrorists to the Guantanamo Bay prison in Cuba that President Barack Obama has vowed to close “and we’re going to find out everything they know.” He also said he would rebuild the nation’s intelligence agencies and military. He attacked Cruz for his voting record on defense spending, saying the only thing the Texas senator had “ever voted for was a budget that Rand Paul sponsored, that brags about cutting defense spending."

Cruz said he would redirect resources from a “booming economy” under his administration to rebuild the military. He repeated his vow to “carpet-bomb” Islamic State, calling it a “different fundamental military strategy” that could wipe out the terrorist network.

Paul took a different tack, saying that National Security Agency surveillance had done nothing to prevent terrorism and provided only a false sense of security.

“I don’t believe we have to give up privacy for security," Paul said.

In Iowa, almost a third of Republican primary voters said terrorism or foreign policy was their top concern when choosing a candidate, according to a Quinnipiac poll conducted this month. A similar share of New Hampshire Republicans singled out national security concerns, also making it their top issue when selecting a candidate.

Combating a Moderator

Cruz showed flashes of the combativeness that’s alienated many of his colleagues in the Senate, while appealing to his supporters. His target was Fox News moderator Chris Wallace, not Kelly.

When Cruz sought to respond to a question directed at Christie, Wallace said the Texan didn’t have the right to speak because his name hadn’t been invoked by the New Jersey governor.

"I know you like to argue about the rules," Wallace said. "But we’re going to conduct a debate."

Later, Cruz complained that "the last four questions" had been provocations to attack him.

"If you guys ask one more mean question, I may have to leave the stage," he said.

"It is a debate," Wallace shot back.

Rubio chimed in, saying, "Don’t worry, I’m not leaving the stage no matter what you ask me."

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