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Trump's Absence Was A Big Presence At The GOP Debate In Iowa


For a short time last night, it was possible to glimpse what the presidential race might have been without Donald Trump. His absence from last night's debate left the other candidates to clash. Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz challenged each other's records. Jeb Bush impressed more critics than in the past. In the first of two reports, NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson has the story on the man who wasn't there, as well the candidates who were.

MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: Trump has dominated the GOP primary from the beginning with his big personality and his big poll numbers. And last night, his absence was a big presence. The first question was a softball to Ted Cruz about the man Fox News moderator Megyn Kelly called the elephant not in the room.


TED CRUZ: Let me say, I'm a maniac, and everyone on this stage is stupid, fat and ugly. And Ben, you're a terrible surgeon. Now that we've gotten the Donald Trump portion out of the way...


CRUZ: ...I want to thank everyone here for showing the men and women of Iowa the respect to show up and make the case to the people of this state and the people of the country why each of us believe we would make the best commander in chief.

LIASSON: Cruz, who was leading in the polls in Iowa until Trump subjected him to a barrage of attacks, is hoping Trump's decision to boycott the debate turns out to be a big mistake. Jeb Bush also took on Trump, saying that presidential candidates need to remember that words have consequences.


JEB BUSH: Donald Trump, for example - I mentioned his name again just if anybody was missing him. Mr. Trump believed that in reaction to people's fears that we should ban all Muslims. Well, that creates an environment that's toxic in our own country. Disparaging women, disparaging Hispanics, that's not a sign of strength.

LIASSON: But beyond that, there was a surprisingly little discussion of Trump, who is leading the polls in Iowa and everywhere else. Instead, the candidates went after Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama and each other. The moderators played a series of video clips highlighting Marco Rubio's past statements on immigration - statements he has now abandoned. Rubio tried to explain his current position.


MARCO RUBIO: We are not going to round up and deport 12 million people, but we're not going to go around handing out citizenship cards either. There will be a process, we will see what the American people are willing to support. But it will not be unconstitutional executive orders like the ones Barack Obama has forced on us.

MEGYN KELLY: Gov. Bush, do agree that Senator Rubio has not reversed himself on his immigration promise?

BUSH: Well, I'm kind of confused because he was the sponsor of the Gang of Eight bill that did require a bunch of thresholds, but it ultimately allowed for citizenship over an extended period of time. And then he cut and run because it wasn't popular amongst conservatives, I guess.

LIASSON: Ted Cruz was the main target last night. He is locked in a battle with Trump for first place in Iowa, but he's also fighting Marco Rubio, who wants to place second, or a strong third. Here's how Rubio reacted after the moderators played old clips of Cruz looking like he, too, had flip-flopped on immigration.


RUBIO: This is the lie that Ted's campaign is built on, and he's the most conservative guy and everyone else is a rhino. The truth is, Ted, throughout this campaign, you've been willing to say or do anything in order to get votes. Now, you want to trump Trump on immigration.

KELLY: Go ahead, Sen. Cruz.

CRUZ: You know, I like Marco. He's very charming. He's very smooth. But the facts are simple. When he ran for election in the state of Florida, he told the people of Florida, if you elect me, I will lead the fight against amnesty. When I ran in Texas, I told the people of Texas, if you elect me, I will lead the fight against amnesty. We both made the identical promises, but when we came to Washington, we made a different choice. Marco made the choice to go the direction of the major donors to support amnesty because he thought it was politically advantageous.

LIASSON: After that question, Chris Christie jumped in to argue that governors like him make things happen while senators just talk and talk.


CHRIS CHRISTIE: This is why you need to send someone from outside of Washington to Washington. I feel like...


CHRISTIE: ...I feel like I need a Washington-to-English dictionary converter. I mean, stop the Washington bull, and let's get things done.

LIASSON: In the end, the Trump-less debate was a little more subdued than the others, with fewer theatrics and personal insults. Three days from now, Iowa voters will tell us whether Trump's decision to boycott the debate helped him or hurt him in Iowa. Mara Liasson, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Mara Liasson is a national political correspondent for NPR. Her reports can be heard regularly on NPR's award-winning newsmagazine programs Morning Edition and All Things Considered. Liasson provides extensive coverage of politics and policy from Washington, DC — focusing on the White House and Congress — and also reports on political trends beyond the Beltway.