From Des Moines, Iowa –
In dueling political events in Iowa’s capital, Donald Trump and other other Republicans sought the support of Iowa voters just days before the first votes are cast in the race for President.
Trump boycotted the final GOP debate before the Iowa Caucus, instead hosting a rally dedicated to raising money to help military veterans, as the GOP leader shrugged off questions about whether he would be hurt by the move.
“Will I get more votes, will I get less votes,” Trump said. “Who the hell knows?”
Barely two miles away, the GOP debate began with several shots at Trump.
“I want to thank everyone here for showing the men and women in Iowa the respect to show up and make the case to the people of this state and the people of this country why each of us believe we would make the best Commander in Chief,” said Ted Cruz.
The main spin from Republicans at the debate was that it was a better gathering without Trump, as the candidates were able to more deeply explore issues of concern to the voters.
Here’s a review of how the night went for the top Republicans.
Donald Trump – Instead of going to the GOP debate, Trump led a rally just across town at Drake University that centered on raising money for veterans. Trump’s rally drew a boisterous crowd inside, but it didn’t really seem to outshine the Republican debate. For those who had never seen a Trump rally, it was an opportunity to watch Trump at work. “My whole theme is make America great again,” Trump said to cheers. Trump even had two fellow Republican candidates come and join him, as Mike Huckabee and Rick Santorum not only joined him on stage, but also spoke for several minutes.
Ted Cruz – Cruz started off strong as he opened the debate with a bit of humor at Donald Trump’s expense – but after that – Cruz seemed to struggle at times, as he sparred with the moderators. The Texas Senator rebounded during a back-and-forth with Marco Rubio over immigration, and when he was handed a hanging curve ball question that basically asked why people in Washington, D.C. disliked himself so much. Cruz didn’t drive into a ditch or anything, but it seemed like he could have taken more advantage of the absence of Trump in this debate.
Marco Rubio – Rubio had a series of good moments, as he tried to keep the focus away from Donald Trump, and instead took aim at Hillary Clinton and President Obama. But Rubio also got bogged down badly during an extended exchange on immigration, which again featured his work for a major immigration reform bill in the Congress, something that has become a major problem for conservative voters this year. For the most part, Rubio did well with Trump not on the stage, as he tries to gain late momentum in this race, as he clearly tried to mention his faith repeatedly, reaching to more religious voters in Iowa.
Ben Carson – Carson went long periods in this debate without being involved in some of the most pointed exchanges; he tried to score points by reinforcing that he was the only person on stage not to sport an elected title. Carson had another less than memorable response related to foreign policy. His campaign has been lagging in recent weeks, and there did not seem to be a magic moment on the debate stage Thursday night which would turn that around – as Trump, Cruz and Rubio try to snatch away his supporters.
Jeb Bush – Even with Trump not on the stage, Jeb Bush kept after the GOP front runner at times, as the former Florida Governor chided his colleagues for refusing to take on Trump. “I kind of miss him,” Bush said, saying “everybody else was in the witness protection program” when it came to opposing Trump. Jeb also seemed to score points against Marco Rubio during an exchange on immigration as well. Bush used the debate to repeatedly emphasize his conservative record as Governor; it was a solid debate for Bush, who still harbors dreams of sparking a comeback in Iowa.
Chris Christie – With Trump across town, Christie decided not to play the role of attack dog, as he sidestepped several opportunities to clash with other Republicans, instead taking aim at Hillary Clinton and President Obama. Christie specifically attacked Clinton on her email troubles, saying that if elected President, he would make sure there was a full investigation of her private email server from Clinton’s time as Secretary of State. But Christie did not seem to have an electric moment that would give him some new kind of spark.
Rand Paul – Back on the main stage after skipping the last debate when he was demoted to the undercard, Rand Paul tried to stay on the offense as he jabbed at Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio on immigration, as well as military and intelligence matters. While Paul was back in the mix with the other top Republicans, he still seemed to be on the margins of the GOP battle. His backers argue that he has a very good ground game in Iowa for the Caucus – we’ll see on Monday if that’s the case.
John Kasich – With or without Trump on the main stage, the Ohio Governor stuck to his game plan of the last few debates, which was to emphasize his record in the Congress and as Governor. “You go the extra mile,” he said about his driving ethic as an elected official. Like Bush and Christie, this debate for Kasich was less about what he could achieve in Iowa, as it was to spur more support back in New Hampshire, where Kasich has done well in recent polls.