DES MOINES — A debate without Donald Trump offered his rivals a chance to escape his long shadow Thursday, resulting in sharp exchanges among Republicans hoping to survive the winnowing of the presidential field that will begin Monday in Iowa.
The billionaire real estate mogul’s spat with debate host Fox News over moderator Megyn Kelly produced an unusual political viewing choice — seven leading contenders sharing a stage on one cable network and the national leader in the polls standing alone at his own competing event, being aired by another.
Though Trump skipped the debate, his name and influence on the field were mentioned from the start, as Kelly asked about the “elephant not in the room.”
Texas Sen. Ted Cruz was ready. “Let me say I’m a maniac and everyone on this stage is stupid, fat and ugly,” said Cruz, sarcastically channeling Trump shots at others.
“And Ben,” he said, turning to retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson, “you’re a terrible surgeon.”
Kelly pressed. What, she asked Cruz, about his one-time embrace of his rival? Earlier in the campaign, Trump and Cruz appeared to be friends who avoided criticizing one another. That all has changed as Cruz has risen in the polls.
Cruz tried some praise, saying he hoped to earn the support of Trump’s backers. But he wasn’t about to let Trump off that easily. Remember, Cruz said, “there is a difference between personal insults and attacks — between going into the mud with ad hominems and focusing on issues and substance.”
Florida Sen. Marco Rubio called Trump the “greatest show on Earth” but insisted that the election was about more important matters. And Jeb Bush, a frequent sparring partner of Trump in the past six debates, said he missed the “teddy bear.”
“Everyone else was in the witness protection program when I went after him on behalf of what the Republican cause should be: conservative principles, belief in limited government, belief in accountability, leading by fixing the things that are broken,” Bush said.
Cruz clearly was the biggest victim of Trump’s absence. Rivals attacked him as a come-lately conservative. They noted that although he positions himself as a maverick, he worked in the George W. Bush administration.
The forum did include non-Trump-related segments, offering voters a glimpse at the primary-within-the-primary that has been playing out for weeks among the remaining candidates, particularly in an intense exchange over immigration policy that drew in Cruz, Rubio and Bush.
Cruz, after being confronted by Kelly with video of his statements in support of an amendment he offered to a 2013 immigration reform proposal, insisted that he was not a proponent of amnesty.
“We can build a fence, we can triple the border patrol, we can end sanctuary cities,” he said. “What is missing is the political will because too many Democrats, and sadly too many Republicans, don’t want to solve this problem.”
Rubio pounced, calling Cruz’s claims about his conservatism the “lie” that his campaign is built on.
“The truth is, Ted, you’ve been willing to say or do anything to get votes,” Rubio said.
Rubio faced his own video moment as Kelly showed clips of statements early in his career opposing any path to citizenship for those in the country illegally, juxtaposing them with the Senate immigration compromise that he backed in 2013 that would have created such a pathway.
As Rubio tried to insist that his position was consistent, Bush accused him of misleading voters.
As Cruz and Rubio continued to pummel each other, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie jumped in to remind voters of one of his chief credentials — not being a member of Congress.
“Stop the Washington bull,” he said.
Earlier, Cruz and Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky sniped over Senate votes on national defense and surveillance programs as they competed for Tea Party voters and libertarians.
The three past and present governors — Christie, Bush and John Kasich of Ohio — highlighted their records as executives in what has been called a fight for the “establishment lane.”
Carson discussed how he’s taken more life-and-death 2 a.m. calls than “everybody here put together.”
Rubio presented himself as the best choice for Republicans eager to turn the page after almost two terms of President Barack Obama.
Cruz, though, was most often in the center of things. When asked about colleagues’ dislike of him, Cruz was defiant: “The people I have been accountable to every day in the Senate are the 27 million Texans I represent.
“If I’m our nominee, I will unite this party, and we’ll defeat Hillary Clinton, and we will turn this country around once and for all,” he said.
The next GOP debate is set for Feb. 6, in Manchester, New Hampshire.
This report includes material from the McClatchy Washington Bureau.