It was a surreal night in Iowa. Seven leading Republicans showed up to debate, while the man they’d come to take down skipped out on the event, holding a fundraiser for veterans a few miles away. We wove the events together into a single liveblog, with Molly Ball reporting from Des Moines, and other members of The Atlantic’s staff watching feeds of both events.
It’s hard to believe that anyone knows just yet whether Trump’s odd gambit will help him consolidate his lead in Iowa, or undermine it. But as I watched the debate, I was struck by the thought that this was the race that might have been, had he never thrown his hat into the ring:
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.
You can read more of my reflections on how each of the candidates performed in Trump’s absence, and of our full coverage of the night’s events, here.