Republican Candidates Blast Away at Cruz in Final GOP Debate Before Iowa Caucuses
January 29, 2016
Donald Trump found himself sidelined for the first time from a televised presidential debate on Thursday, ceding the stage to his Republican opponents in a high-stakes gamble less than three days before the Iowa caucuses.
As seven candidates lined up on the Fox News debate stage in Des Moines, Trump hosted a rival event, ostensibly to raise money for veterans, on the other side of town, broadcast simultaneously on competing networks.
The absence of the Republican frontrunner from the main stage in Iowa led to a debate unusually focused on policy, free of the usual personal swipes and, by the end of the two hours, the Trump-less debate appeared to have emboldened his rivals.
Texas senator Ted Cruz claimed the mantle of the frontrunner on stage, complaining that other candidates – and moderators – were targeting him. Florida senator Marco Rubio put in a spirited and enthusiastic showing, while his one-time ally Jeb Bush, the former Florida governor, had one of his strongest performances to date.
Meanwhile, less than three miles away, Trump appeared on stage for his veterans event with a devil-may-care attitude. “Will I get more votes? Will I get less votes?” Trump said of his decision to withdraw from the main debate. “Nobody knows. Who the hell knows?”
The side-by-side juxtaposition of the formal Fox News debate, and Trump’s dual event – which had the atmosphere of a political variety show, and was broadcast live on CNN, MSNBC and C-Span – was a bizarre sight on the eve of Monday’s Iowa caucuses, when the first votes will be cast to choose the Republican and Democratic nominees for president.
It compounded the sense that the billionaire Republican frontrunner’s campaign has rendered his party’s 2016 nomination process one of the most wild and unpredictable in modern history.
While Trump’s campaign may have calculated, correctly, that his boycott would dominate the news agenda, the reality was also that he was virtually invisible at the main debate, which may play an important role for the many Iowa caucus-goers who remain undecided.
The most consequential and heated exchange came in the second hour, when the conversation turned to immigration reform – the issue that has been at the core of the Republican primary.
The moderators immediately put the question to Rubio, for whom immigration remains a political liability after his work on a comprehensive bill in 2013 that would have granted a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants.
The Florida senator has worked hard to recapture support among conservatives skeptical of his past legislation and, confronted with a video clip highlighting his changing positions on immigration, Rubio insisted: “I have never supported blanket amnesty.”
But Bush was at the ready to accuse Rubio of backing away from his signature accomplishment in Congress. “He cut and ran,” Bush shot back. “And that’s a tragedy.” Rubio pushed back that Bush had flip-flopped on a pathway to citizenship, to which Bush tersely responded: “So did you.”
It was one of the tougher moments for Rubio, forcing him on the defensive in an otherwise strong debate performance.
Cruz, also, was made to answer for his inconsistency on the issue, with clips shown depicting the senator advocating a path to legal status for undocumented migrants.
The arch-conservative Texan took the opportunity to aim his fire back towards Rubio, noting both of them had vowed to “lead the fight against amnesty” in Washington but that only he had done it – arguing that Rubio teamed up with Barack Obama and other Democrats pushing immigration reform.
Cruz and Rubio have engaged in a bruising and increasingly bitter feud over the past two months, as both have risen in the polls while jockeying to emerge as the clear alternative to Trump.
Rubio, in response to Cruz’s charge, unloaded on his colleague as essentially being an inauthentic opportunist.
“This is the lie that Ted’s campaign is built on – that he’s the most conservative guy and everyone else is a RINO,” Rubio said, referring to the acronym deployed by conservatives to describe a ‘Republican In Name Only’. Turning to Cruz, he added: “Throughout this campaign, you have been willing to say and do anything to get votes.”
For once, Trump was barely mentioned outside of a brief spell at the opening of the debate when Megyn Kelly, the Fox News anchor whose participation in the debate led to Trump’s boycott, referred to him as “the elephant not in the room”.
Rubio joked about they would walk off the stage if confronted with questions they didn’t like, while Cruz delivered what was evidently a pre-prepared zinger. “I’m a maniac and everyone on this stage is stupid, fat, and ugly,” he deadpanned. “Now that we’ve gotten the Donald Trump portion out of the way ... ”
Bush also sought to render the frontrunner a joke. “I kind of miss Donald Trump, he was like a teddy bear to me,” he said.
Bush was the only candidate to later return to Trump, saying that his proposed ban on Muslims, disparaging remarks about women and degrading mockery of disabled people, would alienate voters and was “no way to win an election”.
Yet by the end of two hours, the Republican frontrunner had been almost completely eclipsed from a televised debate, with the others emboldened by his absence.
Ohio governor John Kasich and New Jersey governor Chris Christie, both of whom are pinning their hopes on strong showings in the New Hampshire primary later next month, portrayed themselves as serious executives-in-waiting with the experience the White House demands.
Kentucky senator Rand Paul was one of several candidates to take the fight to the Democratic frontrunner Hillary Clinton, talking about her husband Bill Clinton’s infidelity and claiming their family foundation had invested millions in “regimes who treat women like cattle”.
Ben Carson, the retired neurosurgeon who has plummeted in the polls amid criticism that he does not have the policy chops to be commander-in-chief, once again stumbled.
“I think we ought to give Ukraine offensive weapons and I think we ought to fight them on the economic basis because Putin is a one-horse country: oil and energy,” he said.
As his main rivals engaged in a serious conversation about the future of the country, Trump was standing on the stage the other side of town, telling his pregnant daughter: “Ivanka, it would be so great if you had your baby in Iowa. It would be so great. I would win.”
He was joined on stage fellow Republican candidates Mike Huckabee and Rick Santorum, both Republican candidates who previously won of the Iowa caucuses but are this time trailing so badly in the polls this time that they were not invited to the main debate, instead appearing in a Fox lower-tier debate alongside former CEO Carly Fiorina and former Virginia governor Jim Gilmore.
Both Huckabee and Santorum spoke briefly at Trump’s event, appearing awkward at a podium emblazoned with the name ‘Trump’.
The Trump campaign later said the former host of The Apprentice personally contributed $1m to veterans causes and raised an additional $5m through the event.
While it remains unclear if Trump’s gamble with the final debate before the Iowa caucuses will harm or boost his campaign, the fact he was willing to take such a risk speaks to his domination of the race so far.
Iowa, which is often determined by Christian evangelical voters, is the only early state where Trump has not been consistently at the top of the polls. However after weeks trailing the staunchly conservative Cruz in Iowa, Trump regained his position and, in recent days, appeared to be pulling ahead.
The real estate baron now has the largest lead in Iowa since he entered the race, according to a Monmouth University survey this week that showed Trump on 30 percent, compared to Cruz’s 23 percent and Rubio’s 16 percent.
He also enjoys 16 point lead over his nearest rival, Cruz, in an average of national polls. He also has overwhelming leads over other candidates in New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada.
Still, there was some suggestion he may have had second thoughts about boycotting the debate.
Fox News said the Republican frontrunner spoke three times on the phone with its top executive, Roger Aisles, and offered to backtrack on his decision not to appear at the debate if the network agreed to pay $5m to charity.
Fox News added in a statement: “We explained that was not possible and we could not engage in a quid pro quo.”