While the GOP front-runner decided to snub the Fox News/Google debate in Des Moines, Iowa, for another event, seven rivals took the stage. It ended up being a lively, slightly more informative debate than usual. At times, it was even comical.
The topics were varied. There was much debate on immigration reform. The threat of Islamic terrorism and especially the domestic version was a hot topic. Healthcare, energy policy and the military, among others, were also on tap.
Despite an opening line of questioning directed toward Sen. Ted Cruz about Donald Trump and occasional references to the real-estate mogul, there was little attention paid to his absence.
Cruz was Trump for the night.
The Texas Senator embodied the GOP leader with a bit of humor at the outset with: “I’m a maniac, and everyone on this stage is fat, stupid and ugly. And Ben, you’re a terrible surgeon. Now that we’ve got the Donald Trump portion out of the way.” He went on to thank the Iowans who showed up last night.
Cruz also took the brunt of the attacks from the rest of the field, a position usually reserved for the Donald. Some questions directly prompted other candidates to address his credibility and consistency.
Sen. Marco Rubio took the bait: “This is the lie Ted’s campaign is built on,” Rubio began. “The truth is, Ted, throughout this campaign you’ve been willing to say or do anything in order to get votes.” Not unlike what some candidates may say about Trump.
The Rubio-Cruz brawl inevitably made it back to the “Gang of Eight” immigration question.
The conversation was interspersed with clips from both Cruz’s and Rubio’s past discussing immigration policy, adding an interesting dimension when both candidates tried to defend their consistent approach to the issue of citizenship for illegal immigrants.
Cruz probably hoped he wouldn’t have to play so much defense, particularly in a Trump-less debate. At one point he even threatened to leave the stage if the moderators continued to ask such “mean” questions.
Among the other candidates, Sen. Rand Paul, who was excluded from the last debate, received rousing cheers from the crowd whenever he spoke, which turned into a semi-chant after his closing statement.
Gov. Chris Christie, with his usual combative stance, ridiculed, as he has done in the past, the Senate floor-like exchanges between Cruz and Rubio, topping it off with jabs at Hillary Clinton whenever he could.
Jeb Bush looked more comfortable without Trump, forcefully attacked Rubio’s record and adeptly defended his family legacy. But any excitement surrounding Bush is probably too little, too late.
Trump, in turn, believes his supporters will caucus regardless of his absence from last night’s debate or not.
On Monday, all the campaigning -- and all the punditry -- will be put to the test.