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.