DES MOINES — With Donald Trump AWOL, Republican presidential candidates Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio dominated the debate stage Thursday as they launched a final push for Republican voters with three days to go until the Iowa caucuses.
The long-term impact of Trump's absence remains unclear. The front-runner skipped the last debate before first votes in the GOP presidential primary over a disagreement with Fox News. But in the immediate, it created a political opening for Cruz and Rubio — and they walked right through it. Rubio finished a debate with the most talk-time, followed by Cruz, allowing both to project a sense of command before what was expected to be large prime time Iowa audience.
"There are 615,000 registered Republicans in Iowa, I would assume 70 percent watched or so; I bet the numbers are pretty good," Cruz campaign manager Jeff Roe said, in an interview with reporters in the "spin room" after the two-hour debate. "That is an enormous opportunity."
Rubio communications director Alex Conant called the debate a flat-out win. "This was probably Marco Rubio's best debate performance. Obviously, he got the most time tonight — it's the first time he got the most time and he made the most of it," he said. "This was a very good night for us,"
The two senators shined in several moments while getting roughed up in others.
Florida's Rubio was at his best when discussing national security and his Christian faith, as well as his plan reverse President Obama's agenda and defeat the Democratic nominee in November. Texas' Cruz advanced his cause when deftly making the case to end the ethanol mandate — a controversial move in Iowa — elaborating on what he meant when he said he would "carpet bomb" the Islamic State, and explaining his ideas for a post-Obamacare health care system.
Both Cruz and Rubio took their lumps under tough questioning on immigration. In an unorthodox move that must have surprised their campaigns, Fox News moderator Megyn Kelly didn't just ask the candidates to explain their inconsistencies on the politically charged issue that is tracked closely by Iowa conservatives, she played old video of old interviews in which they express support for policies they have since disavowed or backtracked from.
Rubio was forced to discuss his previous opposition to a pathway to citizenship for illegal immigrants; Cruz was confronted with his past support legalizing illegal immigrants. Both campaigns insisted post-debate that the segment was a win for them, and a big loser for the other. Indeed, in a bit of irony, the fierce rivals emerged from the debate in almost word-for-word agreement that evening was a resounding success for them and a disaster for the other guy.
"Anybody watching tonight already knew everything about Marco Rubio and his position on immigration. What was new tonight was the tape that they played of Ted Cruz flip-flopping on immigration," Conant said. "That was important for viewers to see. Everybody knows where Marco Rubio stands on immigration. In fact, we welcome the opportunity to explain his position to millions of people who were watching tonight."
Compare how similar that reads to what Roe and Cruz communications advisor Jason Miller had to say.
"The big takeaway on the night is, the video montage for Marco Rubio was a brutal hit. We saw very clearly, there were promises made, and very clearly there were promises broken," Miller said. Roe added: "Any minute we can talk about immigration with Marco Rubio is going to be a good night for us and a good minute."
Cruz and Rubio are chasing different goals as the long campaign for Iowa hits the home stretch; the caucuses are scheduled for Monday evening. That is partly why it's hard to figure out the significance of Trump's absence.
For Cruz, winning is still attainable. He led Trump in public opinion polls from late fall through early January. But the billionaire reality television star has retaken the lead. Cruz, running second to Trump nationally and in the early states, was given the center podium on the debate stage in place of Trump. Cruz's campaign feels like the senator made the most of the opportunity to overtake Trump., but it's not yet known if was able capitalize.
Rubio's goal is to finish a strong third, an outcome that in no way relates to where Trump finishes in the caucuses. It appeared Rubio performed ably enough to continue the late-breaking momentum toward achieving and possibly exceeding, expectations that he has been experiencing here in recent weeks. A focus group of Iowa Republicans that was conducted by GOP pollster Frank Luntz during the debate gave the victory to Rubio.
Cruz has won previous Luntz debate focus groups.