DES MOINES — Republican presidential candidates Thursday night, in their final debate before the Iowa caucuses, wrestled over policy differences and conservative credentials but only after tossing a few sarcastic barbs at the missing candidate: Donald Trump.
“I’m a maniac,” said Senator Ted Cruz of Texas, the candidate closest to Trump in the polls, poking fun at Trump’s insulting debating style. “And everyone on this stage is stupid fat and ugly.
“Now that we’ve gotten the Donald Trump portion out of the way, I want to thank everyone here for showing respect to the people of Iowa,” said Cruz, in one of several quips at the businessman’s expense.
Former Florida governor Jeb Bush also resorted to a bit of sarcasm.
“I kinda miss Donald Trump,” Bush said. “He was a teddy bear to me. We had such a loving relationship.”
But Trump, who decided to boycott the debate over his ongoing feud with Fox News, was spared substantial criticism as the focus quickly turned to foreign affairs, immigration, and the candidates’ competing visions for American conservatism. In his absence, the debate lost some of the unpredictability and heat of earlier forums, with a greater focus on policy differences.
Held four days before the Iowa caucuses, it offered candidates one of the last big chances to shake up the race. It also afforded Cruz the chance to be at the center of the stage, and he was the target of much of the candidates’ attacks.
Cruz at one point took on Fox News moderator Chris Wallace, complaining that the questions were designed to pit him against the rest of the field.
“The last four questions have been: ‘Rand, please attack Ted,’ ‘Marco, please attack Ted,’ ‘Chris, please attack Ted,’ ‘Jeb, please attack Ted,’ ” Cruz said.
Wallace shot back: “It is a debate, sir.”
“No, no, a debate actually is a policy issue,” Cruz said, and then added: “But I will say this, gosh, if guys ask one more mean question, I may have to leave the stage.”
Senator Marco Rubio of Florida, with a coy smile, added: “Don’t worry, I’m not leaving the stage no matter what you ask me.”
The candidates disagreed strongly over immigration. Bush, displaying some of the passion that his supporters have long wanted, pointedly criticized Rubio for backing away from immigration reform legislation he pushed in 2010.
“He cut and run because it wasn’t popular amongst conservatives, I guess,” Bush said. “We should have a path to legal status for the 12 million people here illegally.”
Trump had dominated media coverage in the 48 hours before the debate by announcing Tuesday he would not show up. He was protesting Fox News’ refusal to remove one of its star anchors, Megyn Kelly, as one of the moderators. Trump has sparred with Kelly dating back to the first primary debate in August, when she pressed him on disparaging comments he had made about women. This week he said on Twitter, “I refuse to call Megyn Kelly a bimbo,” and then, 24 hours later, retweeted someone calling her just that.
Just before the debate, Trump told CNN that Fox News apologized for a statement it sent out Tuesday that mocked him.
“I was treated very unfairly by Fox,” Trump said. “Since then they’ve been excellent, they’ve been very nice, but it’s too late.”
Cruz, who in most polls is running behind Trump in Iowa, challenged him to a one-on-one debate. He said he booked space for Saturday night in Sioux City and they could square off without any moderator.
Trump responded on Twitter by alluding to questions, which Trump has stoked, about whether Cruz’s birth to an American mother in Canada disqualifies him from seeking the presidency. “Can we do it in Canada?” he wrote. An RNC spokesman said such a debate between two candidates would violate party rules.
The debate took place as Trump continues to dominate in national and early-state polls, and with some in the party starting to worry that the billionaire businessman, who is openly running against party elites, could notch early-state victories and win the nomination.
An NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll released on Thursday showed Trump moving past Cruz in Iowa, with a 32 percent to 25 percent lead. He also maintains large leads in New Hampshire and South Carolina, the next two states to vote.
The two latter polls were conducted before his decision to skip the debate. The Iowa one was conducted Sunday through Tuesday; Trump took his stance Tuesday night.
Although the debate was held in a conference center in downtown Des Moines, many of the candidates seemed to have their sights set 1,300 miles away in New Hampshire.
A group of more mainstream candidates — Christie, Bush, Rubio, and Kasich — are in a vigorous fight to distinguish themselves and catch up to Trump before the Granite State primary Feb. 9.
The next debate will take place on Feb. 6 in Manchester.
Christie touted his ability to work across the aisle. Kasich made little effort to appeal to the angst that outsider candidates are trying to tap into, saying, “If you want to be commander in chief, you have to have the experience.”
Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky, on the stage after not making the previous debate, defended his libertarian positions, which have faded from the discussion in the wake of domestic and international terrorist attacks.
With Trump’s absence, Ben Carson stood as the sole person on the stage who’d never held political office.
“You won’t hear a lot of polished political speech from me, but you will hear the truth,” said Carson, a former brain surgeon.
“I’ve had more 2 a.m. phone calls than anyone else here, making life or death decisions.”
Bush is still in the hunt largely based on a rejiggered campaign focused on performing well in New Hampshire. But he still needs a break-out moment and a way to gather momentum.
He continued to grapple with his family legacy, which has become a weakness in a contest where conservative GOP voters are hungering for change.
“Look, I’m establishment because my dad — the greatest man alive — was president of the United States, and my brother, who I adore as well, was a fantastic brother and was president — fine, I’ll take it,” he said. “I guess I’m part of the establishment because Barbara Bush is my mom. I’ll take that, too.”
Kasich has been gaining traction in New Hampshire but is mired in the pack with Bush. Christie has fallen in several recent polls.
Before the prime-time debate, a quartet of candidates who did not meet the polling threshold — Carly Fiorina, Mike Huckabee, Rick Santorum, and Jim Gilmore — faced off in an undercard debate.
Some of the candidates — particularly Huckabee and Santorum, who won the Iowa caucuses in 2008 and 2012, respectively, but are now mired in the lower tier — criticized the media for their low standing in the polls.
“This race is called the undercard debate, it wasn’t advertised significantly, the entire run-up to this the conversation wasn’t about anyone on this stage,” Santorum said. “The entire lead-up to this debate was about whether Donald Trump was going to show up for the next debate.”
Matt Viser can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.