Even in absentia, Donald Trump dominated last night's Republican presidential debate in Iowa.
While his rivals discussed Islamic terrorism and immigration, the split-screen evening had Trump stealing the spotlight by refusing to attend and instead holding a competing rally nearby. That event took on the appearance of a political variety show as the former reality television star shared his stage with the last two winners of the state’s Republican presidential caucuses, plus a Green Beret who shares a name with the legendary actor and Iowa native John Wayne.
Trump's crowd repeatedly broke out in chants of “U.S.A! U.S.A!” during a gathering broadcast live by CNN and MSNBC, cable news networks that compete with debate host Fox News.
It was a bold move for Trump to ditch the Des Moines debate, just four days before the state’s caucuses, the nation’s first presidential nominating contest. The New Yorker has fought to the top of polls in Iowa despite strong showings at earlier moments from Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, who has since dropped out of the race; retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson; and Senator Ted Cruz of Texas. While the billionaire remains neck-and-neck with Cruz in Iowa, his taste for risk appeared to pay off on Thursday night.
As the two-hour debate drew to a close, Trump commanded 36 percent of the political conversation on Twitter, according to statistics provided by the social media company. The next closest contender, Cruz, had less than half that total.
“Isn't this better than that debate that's going on?” Trump said, speaking at an event to benefit veterans at Drake University, less than three miles from the debate venue in downtown Des Moines.
Several observers emphatically agreed, seeing yet another political masterstroke for the real estate mogul that once again showed his media prowess.
“The event tonight shows he's winning,” said Steve Bannon, executive chairman of Breitbart News. “Trump's event tonight was like a Fellini movie—veterans, entrepreneurs, capitalists, Diamond and Silk, and concerned citizens. It was a pure slice of Americana.”
Katon Dawson, a former chairman of the South Carolina Republican Party, wondered if there would be any slowing Trump down.
“There is now a math problem in stopping the momentum that is Trump,” Dawson said. “Trump is shoring up and mobilizing his base with CNN giving great coverage,” adding, “The other candidates were talking to a national audience, sniping and griping, trying to gather support nationwide.”
Former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee and former Senator Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania arrived at Trump's event after participating in the earlier under-card debate.
Santorum, who complained during the earlier debate that there was too much media attention on Trump, said he attended the front-runner’s rally because he was invited. “I’m not busy tonight after this debate,” he said. “I have some time.”
The debate took place with growing evidence that Trump has reclaimed his position as the Iowa front-runner, with a NBC/Wall Street Journal poll showing him at 32 percent. Cruz was backed by 25 percent, followed by Rubio at 18 percent.
Back on the debate stage, one moderator described Trump as the elephant not in the room. The seven candidates who did participate in the debate worked to find their footing, unaccustomed to not being in the front-runner's massive shadow.
Still, Trump was the focus early in the debate. “I’m a maniac, and everyone on this stage is stupid, fat and ugly, and Ben you’re a terrible surgeon,” Cruz said to loud laughter and applause. “Now that we’ve gotten the Donald Trump portion of out the way, I want to thank everyone here 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.”
With Trump gone, Cruz and Rubio received most of the attention in the debate. “In Iowa, the most interesting fight is for third, and undecided Iowa Republicans will likely be impressed by the performances of both Rubio and Christie,” said Jeff Patch, a Republican strategist in Iowa.
“Most of the chatter on the floor during commercial breaks was divided into two sentiments,” said Matt Strawn, a former chairman of the Republican Party of Iowa who attended. “No one seemed to be missing Donald Trump and it wasn't Ted Cruz's finest hour.”
Erick Erickson, a conservative blogger who contributed to National Review's anti-Trump issue, said most Iowa Republicans probably watch Fox News, which broadcast the debate, instead of the other networks that carried Trump's rally.
“I don't know that he does himself any favors with Iowa voters who treat this almost like a religion, and expect you to go through the motions,” Erickson said. “This is the only debate in Iowa, and he decided to skip it.”
—With assistance from Joshua Green, Kevin Cirilli, and Esme E. Deprez.