Debate takeaways: Without Trump, spotlight on Cruz, Rubio
(AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)
Republican presidential candidate former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush speaks during a meeting with employees at Nationwide Insurance, Wednesday, Jan. 27, 2016, in Des Moines, Iowa. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)
Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks during a campaign stop on Wednesday, Jan. 27, 2016, in Gilbert, S.C. (AP Photo/Rainier Ehrhardt)
Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump poses with a ring given to him by a group of veterans during a campaign event on the campus of Drake University Thursday, Jan. 28, 2016, in Des Moines, Iowa.
Republican presidential candidate Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, center, answers a question as retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson, left, and Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., right, listen during a Republican presidential primary debate.
DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) — It was clear that Thursday night's Republican presidential debate would be dramatically different.
Front-runner Donald Trump skipped the debate, preferring to hold a rally across town to punish debate host Fox News Channel for "toying" with him.
The billionaire businessman's absence gave rivals a far better opportunity to shine in the days before Iowa's caucuses kick off the state-by-state voting to determine parties' nominees. The debate had a sober tone focused more on substance than personality.
There were exceptions, of course. Other leading candidate Ted Cruz defended his authenticity, and Marco Rubio faced questions on immigration.
Some takeaways from the debate:
ELEPHANT NOT IN THE ROOM
Trump has repeatedly demonstrated his ability to dominate the stage. This time, he was mocked early and largely forgotten. Cruz set the tone with a sarcastic impression of his top rival: "I'm a maniac and everyone on this stage is stupid, fat and ugly," Cruz said. "Now that we've gotten the Donald Trump portion out of the way ..."
CRUZ THE FRONT-RUNNER
Cruz fought to make sure he was positioned at center stage in Trump's absence, but did little to take advantage of the opportunity.
The fiery conservative faced sharp questions on immigration, national security and, perhaps most importantly, his trustworthiness.
"Ted, throughout this campaign, you've been willing to say or do anything in order to get votes," Rubio charged.
NO AMNESTY FOR RUBIO
Rubio's position on immigration is by far his greatest vulnerability as he tries to convince skeptical Republican activists that he doesn't support so-called amnesty.
The debate moderators played a series of video clips highlighting Rubio's apparent shift on the issue and questioning whether he had backed off his earlier calls for comprehensive legislation that includes a pathway to citizenship.
BUSH INSISTS HE HAS A CHANCE
Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush repeatedly fought questions about his long-term viability in the 2016 contest, insisting he has a path to the nomination and would ultimately defeat leading Democrat Hillary Clinton.
"We're just starting. The first vote hasn't been counted. Why don't we let the process work?" Bush said.
Bush and Rubio are competing with New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and Ohio Gov. John Kasich to win over the party's centrist wing.
It was a risky move politically, but Donald Trump helped raise $6 million to benefit veterans at a competing event nearby.
Instead of going after his rivals on national television, Trump read out the names of wealthy friends who'd pledged major contributions to veterans' causes. When he announced he'd pledged $1 million himself, the crowd erupted in cheers.
As for the debate, Trump predicted it would have far fewer viewers without him on the stage. That may be true, but Iowa voters will decide in four days whether Trump hurt his chances in the 2016 race simply to prove a point.
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