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The Republican Race That Might Have Been

Without Donald Trump dominating the stage, the GOP candidates offered a glimpse of a very different primary election.

Chris Carlson / AP

Without Donald Trump to kick them around anymore, the other leading Republican candidates for president put together a substantive debate on Thursday night in Iowa. They tangled over immigration, vied to denounce Hillary Clinton, and promised to strike ISIS hard. But it may not have been enough for any of the candidates to change their fate, with the Iowa caucus just days away.

With Trump on the other side of Des Moines, at a fundraiser for veterans, the debate provided a glimpse at the race that might have been. It was possible, again, to understand why a calmer, more confident Jeb Bush had once seemed like the frontrunner, as he fielded tough questions without pandering to the crowd. Marco Rubio delivered a typically polished performance, only this time, it wasn’t overshadowed by Trump’s antics. Rand Paul stressed the issues, from civil liberties to criminal-justice reform to a more restrained foreign-policy, that set him apart from the field and were supposed to make him a contender. John Kasich stressed his record, and his optimism.

Chris Christie, meanwhile, suddenly found himself the most belligerent candidate on the stage, a tonal challenge he labored to master. And without Trump to serve as a foil, Ted Cruz struggled to find targets appropriately scaled for his barbs and attacks. Only Ben Carson’s performance seemed unaltered, his manner still somnolent, and his foreign-policy questions still fumbled.

Fox News had a surprise for the candidates—pre-packaged flip-flop reels showing their reversals on several key issues. Megyn Kelly showed Rubio a compilation of his promises never to consider amnesty, and asked him to square it with his support in the Senate’s Gang of Eight for a path to citizenship.

Rubio first denied it, but when Kelly refused to back down, he then pivoted to attack his one-time mentor Jeb Bush. “You changed your position on immigration because you used to support a path to citizenship,” Rubio said.

“Yeah. So did you, Marco,” Bush responded.

Next, it was Ted Cruz’s turn. Megyn Kelly played another flip-flop reel, this one showing Cruz’s own apparent evolution on the question of amnesty. Cruz denied reversing himself. The problem with Cruz, charged Rand Paul, is that “everybody he knows is not as perfect as him,” accusing him of attacking others for holding the same positions on immigration he’d taken himself. And then Marco Rubio, sensing an opportunity, piled on: “Now you want to out-trump Trump on immigration. But you can't—we're not going to beat Hillary Clinton with someone who's willing to say or do anything to win an election.”

By the end of the exchange, none of the participants seemed well-positioned to siphon off the anti-immigration anger that has helped fuel Donald Trump’s rise. They also did little to address pervasive economic anxieties, to tap the resentment of the political establishment, or to otherwise address the forces that have propelled him to a commanding national lead. The moderators did little to help, peppering the candidates with questions on topics from Puerto Rican statehood to data encryption.

It might have been interesting to watch Trump’s grimaces and facial contortions as his own flip-flop reel played. But he avoided awkward questions on his own, far-longer list of substantive reversals. Standing alone on stage at his veterans’ event across town, though, Trump appeared equally diminished by the absence of his rivals. He brought Rick Santorum and Mike Huckabee up to join him, before yielding the podium to veterans for half an hour. The other cable-news networks cut away from their live coverage, and the rally wound down to its anti-climactic end while the debate remained in full swing.

Most of the candidates came into the night needing something dramatic to change, and it seems unlikely that any of them found it. Ted Cruz enjoys the greatest support among committed caucus-goers, and gave them more of what they’ve found attractive to this point. Trump generated two days of round-the-clock coverage leading up to the debate, which may prove more valuable to him than the missed opportunity to make his case one more time. Whether his even-larger number of supporters bothers to come out to caucus remains an open question.

There will be no more debates before the caucuses commence on Monday night. For a year, the campaign has been measured in polls and focus groups, dollars raised and funds expended, and media appearances and endorsements. It’s possible to squint hard enough at that assemblage of indicators, and see hopeful signs for almost every candidate, just as it was possible to watch the debate and find some aspect of each candidate’s performance to applaud. In a few days, success will instead be tallied in votes and delegates, and the results will be unambiguous.

Yoni Appelbaum

Updates

This live blog has concluded

The Trump campaign is already out with a press release describing his veterans event's successes: They raised $6 million ($1 million of which came from Trump himself) for 22 organizations. "A number" of those groups, the release is careful to note, are based in Iowa.

Republican candidates on the stage tonight had their sights set on Ted Cruz. That was with good reason since Cruz is leading the rest of the field in Iowa, apart from Trump who of course was absent at the debate. Cruz excels in the debate format, but he looked uncomfortable at times as he fended of attack, including charges that he can't be trusted on illegal immigration. That criticism was bolstered by intense questioning from moderator Megyn Kelly.  Cruz was also forced to double down on previous opposition to long-term continuation of the Renewable Fuel Standard, a popular Iowa policy. It will be interesting to see what Iowa voters make of it all when they head to the caucuses next week.

Closing thoughts: the loser tonight was Donald Trump, who didn't show up. The informal norm that candidates show up to debates is an important one. I think voters should penalize him for breaking it. And I think some will. He purports to be tough enough to hold his own and fight in every situation. His absence suggests a penchant for strategic cowering and escapes from accountability when it is advantageous. A president who didn't show up when expected would do harm. Trump gave us reason to expect more of the same: thin excuses for not showing up to do his duty.

I have rarely been so nervous as watching Ben Carson try to recite the preamble to the Constitution. He was halting, and it seemed as if he was trying to remember the lines. But he got through it.

“The central question of this election is trust,” says Cruz. He asks voters to pray on it, and says he’d be honored by their support.

Rubio tells Iowans that if they caucus for him, “America’s light will shine again, and the 21st century will be a new American century.”

Ben Carson asks the crowd to “please think of our founding fathers,” and then recites from memory the preamble to the Constitution.

Jeb stresses his ability to restore alliances, and to defeat Hillary Clinton.

Christie, predictably, goes right back to his role as a prosecutor on 911. “No one will keep this country safer than I will,” he says.

Kasich doubles-down on optimism. It’s an interesting move for a man better known for his acerbic personality, but it certainly sets him apart from the field.

Rand Paul promises fiscal conservatism and a balanced budget in his closing statement—and his supports in the audience send up a raucous cheer.

Did Carson just say 70 percent of our citizens live bicoastally?

Cruz gets a question on ethanol. So far, the candidate has faced criticism in Iowa by calling for an end to the Renewable Fuel Standard, a federal mandate that's popular in the state. Cruz isn't backing down, though. "I don't believe that Washington should be picking winners and losers, and I think there should be no mandates and no subsides whatsoever," he says. Iowa governor Terry Branstad who recently denounced Cruz over this exact issue and who is sitting in the audience tonight won't be happy.

Three cheers for Ted Cruz's opposition to ethanol subsidies. He is right on the merits. And everyone outside of Iowa knows it.

For the first time, Jeb Bush is able to openly knock Donald Trump in a debate—for "disparaging" Hispanics, women, and Muslims—without having to worry about being interrupted by the man himself. It may be the first time we've heard Bush get his full criticism of Trump out in one breath.

Jeb Bush is palpably more comfortable talking about Donald Trump when he's not in the room.

Donald Trump is absent for the question about the toxic climate toward Muslims that he has helped to exacerbate.

Rand Paul essentially asks, Can you be pro-women’s rights if you stayed with your lecherous husband after an affair? The personal is the political. Again.

Rand Paul brings up a strong point here about how Hillary Clinton’s role in the accusations against her husband in the ‘90s might hinder her stance on women’s rights. The New York Times’s Amy Chozick explored this further last week.

Plenty of plugs for Google during this Fox News/Google debate. Before the commercial break, the moderators urge: "Remember to see how the campaigns are responding to the debate in real-time, go to google.com or open your google search app." Hello, product placement!

Carson will face Putin down. Because Putin and that "whole Baltic region" need to be "faced down.” We need one of those New Yorker cartoons of Ben Carson’s United States and the rest of the world.

Marco Rubio proposes a global with-us-or-against-us standard on Iran.

Every time that Ben Carson talks about foreign policy I imagine him pulling out the same flash cards he used to study for the MCATs and memorizing whatever his advisors told him about foreign policy.

Wallace poses an interesting hypothetical question for the candidates: If Roe v. Wade were overturned, would you allow states to legalize it? (This is how abortion laws essentially existed before 1973.) Rand Paul suggests he'd seek a federal solution through the Fourteenth Amendment, which only raises more questions than it answers.

Even as the candidates compete to display their faith on stage, their rhetoric is illuminating. Rand Paul quotes the author Os Guinness. Rubio, a Catholic, has shown off his fluency in language more evocative of the Southern Baptist mega-church he also attends. There are many ways to infuse a public office with private faith, and real differences among the candidates here.

Marco Rubio near-demands that the next president brings religion into the Oval Office: "You should hope that our next president is influenced by their faith. ... I always allow my faith to influence everything I do."

Governor Kasich is trying to sell compassionate conservatism. The polls suggest that the GOP electorate is not buying. He is nevertheless correct that the resources devoted to the mentally ill in this country are scandalously inadequate.

Thank you, John Kasich, for discussing mental-health care and its intersection with the criminal-justice system without framing it within the gun-control debate.

If Hillary Clinton is elected get ready for another four years of Republicans trying to take down a Clinton Administration with a scandal. I'm exhausted just thinking about it.

Rubio throws in a line that Bernie Sanders would make a good president—of Sweden. Nevermind that Sweden has a king and a prime minister. His bigger problem is that there are some 340,000 Iowans of Scandinavian descent. Probably not the best state in which to mock Sweden.

Rubio invokes his savior Jesus, makes easy Sanders-socialist jokes, makes funnier Hillary-pardoning-herself joke, drops mic.

Marco Rubio clarifies that he is not the Messiah come back to save us.

Chris Wallace reminds Ted Cruz that he doesn't have many friends in Washington. My colleague Molly Ball wrote earlier this month how Cruz "wears their loathing as a badge of honor."

Despite Ted Cruz's rhetoric, he has in fact made his career in politics. And he does in fact serve in Washington.

Overall, the Trump event was definitely a political rally, but a bit more tame than some of his appearances. He gave over half of the time to veterans and kept his jibes at his Republican rivals to a minimum.

Chris Wallace-to-English converter: “Senator Cruz, People hate you. Is that a problem?"

Despite the threat posed by man-made global warming, climate change has rarely surfaced as an issue in the Republican primary debates. Somewhat surprisingly, the issue just came up. A moderator calls Marco Rubio a "skeptic of climate change science." Rubio doesn't do anything to dispel that notion. Instead, he promises that when he's president "there will never be any cap-and-trade in the United States." For good measure, Rubio adds: "I do not believe that we have to destroy our economy in order to protect our environment."  A lot of Republican presidential candidates oppose policies aimed at fighting climate change on the grounds that they are likely to hurt the economy. It's a fairly simplistic argument, however, and doesn't grapple with the fact that many experts say that failing to confront the threat of global warming is likely to take a serious economic toll in its own right.

Ben Carson is right—if there were a 10-to-one ratio of immigrants to terrorists shutting down immigration would make perfect sense. In reality the situation is nothing like that!

And Donald Trump is concluding his event at Drake, which lasted just under an hour. That gives him plenty of time to get to the debate if he wants to make a dramatic, late entrance...

Christie: "I need a Washington-to-English converter!" He’s here all night, folks!

Chris Christie uses the flip-flopping on video and the heated debate between Rubio and Cruz to make his case to voters to choose someone outside of Washington.

This has turned into a demolition-derby on immigration, as Bush, Cruz, and Rubio crash into each other at full speed, heedless of the damage they’re incurring to their own chances in the process.