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

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.
Meanwhile... Trump retakes the stage at his event after a trio of veterans speak for about a half hour. "Isn't that better than this debate going on? They're all sleeping," Trump says. He's promptly interrupted by protesters in the back of the room.
Conspiracy theory: Trump knew about impending flip-flop reels.
I'll donate $50 to any candidate who eternally forswears using any variant of the "cramming down your throats" metaphor when referring to public policy.
Immigration is a vulnerable spot for Marco Rubio for sponsoring the Gang of Eight bill, which drafted immigration reform in 2013. But it’s interesting to see him go head to head with Jeb Bush on the issue. Bush, too, has a record of supporting approaches to immigration and famously saying that many illegal immigrants come to the U.S. as an “act of love” for their families.
Marco Rubio: "You used to support a path to citizenship." Jeb Bush: "So did you." The 2016 version of "I know you are, but what am I?"
The highlight-reel gimmick was likely intended to be used against Donald Trump, who’s been, at various points in his life, both for and against almost every major issue that’s up for debate tonight. If so, then by bowing out of the debate, Trump may have dodged a bullet.
Megyn Kelly is soooo upset Trump isn’t here to play this video gotcha game.
In a remarkable moment, Megyn Kelly springs a video clip-reel of Rubio opposing amnesty as he campaigns for office, and asks him whether he didn’t betray that once in office. When Rubio attempts to dispute the way she’s construing the quotes, fires back with further context. It’s an effective way of posing the question, but unless they’ve got similar surprises prepared for the other candidates, it does seem unfair to pick on Rubio.
Jeb Bush stands by his support for granting Puerto Rico statehood. “They should have the right to self-determination,” Bush says, adding that the island’s structural economic problems have to be resolved. Puerto Rico is struggling with massive debt. The Washington Post detailed Bush’s trip to Puerto Rico last year, noting that the former Florida governor won the support of many Floridians of Puerto Rican descent during his two campaigns for governor. Will they come out for him in 2016?
The third-ranking search term on that Google poll on policy repeals was "First Amendment repeal," by the way.
Chris Christie is asked to name one thing the federal government supports that it shouldn't, and he names Planned Parenthood. Christie's history with Planned Parenthood is murky. A 1994 Trenton Star Ledger article quotes the now-governor saying he's pro-choice and has made personal contributions to Planned Parenthood. Fast-forward two decades and Christie, now pro-life, claims the Star Ledger misquoted him. Don't expect to ever find out whether that quote is real or not: The reporter who wrote the Star Ledger article is now one of his spokespeople.
Governor Kasich suggests he would’ve handled the water crisis in Flint by being on top of it. Got that America? If you want a president who will not be on top of problems, look elsewhere.
I actually disagree with Conor on Puerto Rico. It’s precisely the sort of issue that’s seldom raised in presidential debates, but which can bubble up to consume tremendous amounts of attention once a president’s in office. Jeb’s answer demonstrates he’s been paying attention, perhaps not surprising for a former Florida governor.
Once again, this question is very strange. Is statehood for Puerto Rico really something to adjudicate in the highly limited time we have in a televised presidential debate?
Walding, a Green Beret, begins by saying he's not at Trump's event to talk about politics, although he spends the first few minutes of his talk extolling Trump as "unapologetically American" and throws in a joke about Hillary Clinton's emails.
Thinking through how Trump’s absence will play—maybe his supporters watch him tonight and undecideds watch the debate? Or do undecideds watch Trump for the higher entertainment value?
Rand Paul gives a lengthy answer on the criminal-justice system and the economic and racial disparities built into it. For it, he gets a fairly rousing cheer from the GOP debate crowd. An impressive sign of how much the debate over crime and justice has changed, even if it still has a long way to go.
Trump is now calling up veterans to speak, beginning with John Wayne Walding, a decorated veteran of the war in Afghanistan.
Rand Paul is fortunate to get a question on police cameras, allowing him to segue to criminal justice reform, an issue on which he is stronger, by a wide margin, than his rivals. Whether that helps him with GOP voters in Iowa, however, is unclear.
"We're going to be just fine and America is going to continue to lead the world," Kasich says, delivering a very simplistic yet very confident and hopeful message. The line creates a contrast with what often seems like doom and gloom on the debate stage.
What would Ben Carson say to a Muslim mother of three who asked Hillary Clinton this week how she can make sure America "is the best place on earth to raise my family"? Off the bat, Carson invoked his favorite topic, political correctness, saying we must "stop allowing [it] to dictate our policies." He softened his answer a few sentences later, reminding the audience that America is a nation of immigrants, and anyone is welcome "if they want to accept our values and our laws." Chances are, that answer probably won't comfort the aforementioned mother too much.
But if encryption is getting more attention this debate? It may not be coincidence. This is a debate co-sponsored by Google which, like other tech giants, would like to promote public discussion of the problems with backdoors.
I would have loved a reaction shot of Carson when Kasich said, “Our Arab friends."
The question may have been narrow, Conor, but like a seasoned pro, Kasich manages to cram the foreign-policy portion of his stump speech into his response, anyway.
I’m very much against backdoors to encrypted communications, but asking that question to Governor Kasich seems unfair to him. The other candidates are addressing the biggest questions about foreign policy. He’s asked a very specific question about tech policy that, while important, is obscure to the vast majority of Americans.
We’ve come to the early 1990s portion of the evening, wherein the political-correctness straw man makes a ghostly appearance.
Meanwhile, both CNN and MSNBC have long since cut away from the Trump event, so the exposure Santorum and Huckabee are getting, at least nationally, is only on Cspan. So far, however, both Santorum and Huckabee have said more in 2 minutes about veterans than Trump did in the first 25 minutes of his stump speech.
Christie handled Megyn Kelly’s tricky question about profiling really nicely. "It’s not profiling; it’s law enforcement."
Megyn Kelly and Chris Wallace are both being very assertive with the candidates in this debate. And not overly so, I don’t think.
Trump allows Santorum and Huckabee to speak. Santorum jokes that he doesn't want to stand in front of the Trump sign. "I am supporting another candidate," he quips, before launching into a speech in support of vets and his plan to improve the VA.
Kelly asks Rubio about whether his plans to close down mosques and places where radical Muslims congregate would run afoul of the Supreme Court and the First Amendment. Rubio, in his answer, conflates radical speech and radical action and reiterates his support of closing mosques and putting U.S.-based terror suspects in Guantanamo Bay. I suspect the Supreme Court would want to weigh in on both first.
All these candidates have ancestors who immigrated to America at some point. And when they did, the government didn’t know “who they were”.
Trump is now bringing up Mike Huckabee and Rick Santorum, who went straight from the undercard GOP debate to his event.
Marco Rubio reiterates that he’ll send U.S. terrorists to Gitmo. Will that prison ever close?
It's a striking debate stage set tonight—like something inspired by the work of the architect Frank Llloyd Wright.
Trump brings up "low-energy" Jeb Bush at his event, then stops himself to say since he's not at the debate, he doesn't know if Jeb is showing some more life. Then he imitates Bush asking "Where's Trump?"
So far, Donald Trump’s absence from this debate coincides with more interesting and substantive exchanges among the other candidates compared to other debates, or at least that’s my impression, even if it’s hard to remember every past debate.
Expect this subject line on a fundraising email from Marco Rubio's campaign  tonight: "I'm not leaving the stage no matter what you ask me"
Is Cruz trying to horn in on Trump’s anti-Foxism?
Wow, Chris Wallace gets boos for asking Jeb Bush about President Bush’s mistakes in Iraq and Afghanistan. Is the Fox News conventional wisdom suddenly that George W. Bush was a bad foreign-policy president?
Chris Wallace uses some unusual phrasing (at least for a debate moderator) in asking a question of Jeb Bush: "Your brother got us into two wars ..."
Chris Christie pivots to Hillary Clinton when asked about if Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio have the qualifications to be president. “She is not qualified to president of the United States,” Christie says.
Trump started on veterans, but his event seems to be veering into one of his typical campaign rallies. Complaints about the media and crowd shots? Check. A rant against China? Check.
Whenever Ted Cruz says he'll carpet bomb ISIS-occupied cities, I'm reminded of Curtis LeMay musing upon the extensive bombing campaigns of Japan he led during World War II: "I suppose if I had lost the war, I would have been tried as a war criminal."
Marco Rubio's argument that the military has been "diminished" is a common one from the Republican candidates. And it's one the president really resents. During his State of the Union speech earlier this month, he pushed back on the idea that he's ruined America's fighting forces: "The United States of America is the most powerful nation on Earth. Period.  ... It’s not even close. ... We spend more on our military than the next eight nations combined. Our troops are the finest fighting force in the history of the world. No nation attacks us directly, or our allies, because they know that’s the path to ruin."
Ted Cruz’s tough talk about ISIS is just as disconnected from reality as Donald Trump’s tough talk about China.
Trump says that Carl Icahn donated $500,000 to Trump's veterans benefit. "Donald Trump," he says, "gave $1 million." The total donated is now close to $6 million.
Obama dropped 20,000 bombs last year. But no matter. Ted Cruz wants to finally get serious and ​really​ carpet-bomb ISIS.
Kasich delivers a pitch for unity, which makes sense since he's trying to run as the moderate, reasonable Republican candidate. "We cannot fix things in this country ... unless we lead as conservatives, but we also invite people in from the other party. We have to come together as a country, and we have to stop all the divisions." His tone sounds like Nikki Haley’s, as she delivered the GOP rebuttal to President Obama's final State of the Union address.
Cruz continues his attempt to redefine the words, “carpet bombing,” rather than admit his suggested approach to handling ISIS is impractical. He cites the shock-and-awe campaign of the First Gulf War. It drove an organized military out of Kuwait, but how it would work in northern Iraq and Syria remains entirely unclear.
Trump says Fox kept calling him as of a few minutes ago, even after the debate began. He says he started his event 15 minutes late on purpose.
“I’m the only one on this stage with no political title,” Carson says. Without Trump on the stage, that’s true.
Ted Cruz says that he will hunt down ISIS wherever they are. Does that mean he would send U.S. forces into Pakistan?
Carson channels Perot: We need more smart people.
Ben Carson’s invocation of all the 2 a.m. phone calls he has received in life and death situations raises a question that’s always been lurking beneath his candidacy: does an excellent surgeon acquire skills that would apply to being an excellent president? I am unconvinced, and would like to hear him make a rigorous, detailed case.
Trump says he didn’t want to be here, but “when you’ve been treated badly, you have to stick up for your rights.”
Meanwhile, across town, Donald Trump takes the stage to Adele.
Talking information collection during the Google debate is meta.
Kasich touts the fact that he’s scored seven of eight “newsprint paper” endorsements in New Hampshire. It may not be the best pitch to an Iowa crowd, but then, Kasich’s not talking to them. He hopes to make his mark in the Granite State, instead.
I’m wistful for the race that could have been, a fight between Rubio and Paul about civil liberties and foreign policy that would, in my view, have been the most usefully substantive GOP race.
Rubio draws a contrast between himself and Rand Paul on national security, and Paul fires back. “The bulk collection of your phone data, the invasion of your privacy, did not stop one terrorist attack,” says Paul. He’s alone up there on the stage on this issue, but there are cheers in the crowd.
Rubio says: "let's begin by being clear what this campaign is about. It's not about Donald Trump. He's an entertaining guy, he's the greatest show on Earth. This campaign is about the greatest country in the world." Sure, Rubio can say that, but if the candidates on stage are talking about Trump, it sort of is about him, isn't it?
With Donald Trump still the frontrunner and not present to hit back, all the candidates have an incentive to attack him tonight, and so far, all seem to have prepared lines for that purpose. Trump seems like he’ll loom large in this event even as he hosts counter-programming. Would the candidates be better off minimizing him?
Jeb Bush reminds the audience that not a single vote has been counted in the 2016 cycle. Message: "Don't count me out yet.”
Marco Rubio is the Republican candidate most likely to answer questions in a style that seems more like a prepared speech in affect than a conversational response. I always wonder if that plays better or worse with voters.
Rick Santorum and Mike Huckabee, who both participated in the undercard debate, are attending Trump's veterans event. But at the first debate earlier this evening, Santorum seemed resentful of Trump, suggesting that too much attention was paid on his expected absence at the main event. When a moderator reminded Santorum that he'd shortly be hanging out with Trump,  Santorum explained why he's going: He and Huckabee "were asked to come to an event where money was going to be raise to do help our veterans." He didn't answer whether he was going in anticipation of eventually endorsing The Donald.
Ted Cruz begins with a pander—he’ll rescue Iowa from flyover country status—and then does a very effective job mocking Donald Trump by mock-insulting others on the stage while deferentially appealing to Trump voters. It is hard to imagine a better beginning for Cruz.
I spoke too soon. “I’m a maniac,” Cruz said, followed by a series of other remarks typically attributed to the Republican frontrunner and ending with, “Now that we have the Trump portion out of the way"
Megyn Kelly's first question is targeted at the “elephant not in the room.” Cruz declines to take the bait.
Both CNN and MSNBC, along with CSpan, are planning to show all or part of Trump's event at Drake University. There's a podium with Trump's logo center stage and a total of seven American flags—one for each of the candidates at the debate Trump is skipping, I guess.
Megyn Kelly must be feeling even more pressure than is typical as tonight’s debate begins. Any misstep is sure to prompt a barrage from the Trump media machine claiming vindication.
“By Monday, you will have welcomed me into all 99 counties in Iowa,” Ted Cruz tells the crowd. That’s the fulfillment of a pledge he made months ago, but it’s become costly in these final days of the campaign, pulling him to sparsely populated rural areas and away from his greatest concentrations of support. That he’s stuck to it even so is a reminder of how polarizing Cruz can be—either a demonstration that he’s a man of principle, or evidence that he allows absolute commitments to trump common sense.
Pre-debate, Bill O’Reilly is reading emails from his viewers praising his interview with Donald Trump and his (O’Reilly’s) book.
Trump Watch: Taking full advantage of Donald Trump's feud with rival Fox News, CNN snagged an interview with the front-runner aboard his plane en route to Iowa. Trump claimed that officials from Fox had been calling him every 15 minutes to try to get him to reconsider skipping the debate, and he said one had even apologized for the network's treatment of him. Who was that? Trump refused to say. As for why he was sticking to his guns, he said, "You have to stick up for yourself. You have to fight for yourself, and you have to fight for your country." He said his benefit for veterans would raise $5 million or more.

The breakout performance in the first-round debate was delivered by former Virginia Governor Jim Gilmore, who won just by showing up. The narrowing field let him garner 1 percent support for the very first time, and make it on stage. Interest in Gilmore spiked, as he briefly became the candidate most queried on Google. Earlier this afternoon, he spoke with Clare Foran about his Quixotic run for the presidency. A sample of what he had to say:

It’s time for somebody to bell the cat and tell the truth, which is that a socialist approach has never worked in history, and it will never work in the future. It didn’t work in Russia. It won’t work in America.

It’s not just a battle among the candidates—it’s a war between the networks. The debates have been unexpected ratings bonanzas for cable news, and tonight was supposed to be Fox News’ turn. But Trump is giving the network’s rivals a chance to cash in, too. With 15 minutes to go until the debate starts, he’s sitting down for an exclusive live interview on CNN. There’s a parade of talking heads on MSNBC, with Trump’s veterans’ event as the backdrop, gloating over Fox’s struggles. It’s an alliance of convenience, to be sure. But Trump has proven a master of earned media, dominating coverage on cable news—and tonight’s no exception.

The Republican candidates have long dreamed of the moment when Donald Trump will finally depart the stage. Tonight, that dream comes true—only it’s turned into a nightmare.

After escalating his ongoing feud with Fox, Trump declared he wouldn’t participate in the network’s Thursday night debate. Trump’s precipitous withdrawal leaves Ted Cruz at the center of the stage, but he’ll be unable to draw direct contrasts with the man who has surged past him in the Iowa polls. Cruz will be flanked by six other candidates, all of whom had planned to use the debate in Des Moines to make their closing pitch to Iowa voters before Monday’s caucuses.

But now, many of those voters may change the channel, to catch the latest installment of The Donald Trump Show. He’s counter-programmed his own event across town, purportedly a fundraiser for veterans. Rick Santorum and Mike Huckabee, who are participating in the undercard debate along with Carly Fiorina and Jim Gilmore, will scoot three miles across Des Moines to join him, and to try to edge into his spotlight. The other candidates lack the luxury of following the cameras over to Trump—having qualified for the main event, they suddenly risk being relegated to a sideshow.

You, dear reader, don’t have to face the same Morton’s Fork. We’ll be live-blogging both the debate and the Trump event right here.

Iowa voters who choose to watch the debate tonight will find a familiar cast of characters. Cruz has captured the anti-establishment mood of the moment better than any of his rivals, as my colleague Molly Ball explains. Ben Carson, whose star has dimmed, still enjoys support among Christian conservatives in the Hawkeye State. Marco Rubio’s waiting for his moment, perpetually imminent yet never quite here, and Jeb Bush is hoping his hasn’t passed for good. John Kasich and Chris Christie are looking past Iowa to New Hampshire, where the role of truth-telling, tough-minded blue-state governor has more appeal. And Rand Paul makes it back to prime time after being excluded from the last debate, in time to reach out to the Iowans who rallied to his father’s libertarian standard in 2012.

Cruz, robbed of the chance to square off with Trump, is likely to become a target himself. His opposition to ethanol subsidies is unpopular in Iowa and has led Governor Terry Branstad to denounce him. Kasich, Rubio, and Bush, who are locked in a four-way tie for second with Cruz in New Hampshire, may take the chance to draw contrasts with Cruz on issues from immigration to tax reform. Paul has broad policy differences with the rest of the field, particularly with respect to civil liberties and foreign policy, and now that he’s back on stage will lose little time in pointing that out. Carson’s fortunes, for better and for worse, have been wholly divorced from his performances in debates, where he often disappears. And there’s at least a slight chance that Christie will remind voters he was a prosecutor on 9/11.

You can follow every twist and turn of the race with our 2016 Distilled election dashboard, find out more about the candidates by using our 2016 Cheat Sheet, and see how viewers are responding to the candidates with our real-time emoji tracker. And follow along with us, as we live-blog all the action in Des Moines.

Yoni Appelbaum