DES MOINES — Donald Trump was a no-show for the final Republican debate before Monday’s Iowa presidential caucuses, not just physically absent from the stage but also barely mentioned by seven candidates who are fighting to deny him the party’s nomination. It was an unreal moment in what has been an unreal campaign.
The evening offered an almost perfect reflection of the state of the Republican race, with Trump occupying his own space and the rest of the candidates competing with one another to emerge as his principal rival. In his absence, the other hopefuls struggled with only limited success to distinguish themselves as the best of the rest.
What might have been a lively and spirited evening turned into a mostly tepid affair, one that neither stoked the anti-establishment disaffection that has been so talked about throughout the campaign nor provided energy to Republican voters on the eve of the caucuses. Trump may have lost little by skipping the debate — unless Iowans feel used by his feud with Fox News.
What was most striking was the degree to which the candidates chose to ignore Trump — even though he has led the national polls for months, he could win here on Monday, and he holds bigger leads in New Hampshire and South Carolina. No one even bothered to make a case as to why Trump should not be the nominee.
The two candidates with the most to gain were Sens. Ted Cruz of Texas and Marco Rubio of Florida. Cruz is battling Trump for first place in Iowa. Rubio is looking for a strong third-place finish as a way to separate himself from the other mainstream conservatives in the race. But instead of seizing the moment, both Rubio and Cruz found themselves under attack and on the defensive.
Both sought to square past statements and votes with their claims that they now oppose amnesty for immigrants who are in the United States illegally. Each sought to undermine the other, and both came under attack from the others on stage. The exchanges reinforced how muddled and fluid the Republican race remains as the voting is about to begin.
Cruz and Rubio were practiced as always — perhaps overly so — using language from their stump speeches or in Cruz’s case trying to reprise an attack on the moderators from an earlier debate.
Rubio may have gained ground on Cruz, but by failing to fully take command of the stage, the two provided an opening to others, and former Florida governor Jeb Bush and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie quickly jumped to take it.
Bush went after Rubio for cutting and running on immigration reform when Republican Party sentiment shifted against a path to citizenship. Christie played the governor card, chastising both Cruz and Rubio as double-talking legislators who were unwilling to admit they changed their minds.
Ohio Gov. John Kasich, the other mainstream conservative fighting for establishment support, tried anew to set himself apart as a pragmatic and compassionate Republican. Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky needled the others and tried to draw as much libertarian support as possible to give his candidacy a boost. Ben Carson, the retired neurosurgeon who once led the polls in Iowa, was barely a presence for much of the evening.
The competition between Cruz and Rubio played out throughout the debate. With Cruz seeking to consolidate religious conservatives, who have made up a majority of GOP caucus attendees in the past, Rubio took every opportunity to talk about his Christian faith.
Asked about a Time magazine cover from several years ago that described him as the potential savior of the Republican Party, Rubio responded by talking about Jesus Christ as the only savior he knows. His answer underscored the direct appeal to Christian conservatives he has made in his television advertising here in the past few weeks.
Though much was at stake, the debate lacked some of the expected fireworks. There were long stretches in which the candidates settled into predictable answers and safe comments. The candidates appeared to have come to the stage with strategies designed primarily not to make mistakes rather than to score points.
Thursday provided a preview of some of the battles that could unfold in the coming weeks. But with Trump absent from the stage, the event lacked the drama and finality that debates on the eve of critical caucuses and primaries have sometimes offered in the past. In that sense, the forum was artificial in framing the Republican race as it now stands.
The focus at Thursday’s debate was on the seven candidates who shared the stage more than one who wasn’t there. Between now and Monday, however, there will be a different, narrower, focus in Iowa, one in which Trump and Cruz will be the principal actors. All the others will be fighting for respectability and whatever marginal advantage they can squeeze out against their rivals.
The battle between Trump and Cruz for supremacy in Iowa will consume most of the attention over the final days of campaigning here. A loss for either, given what has happened over the past month, will be a setback no matter how the results are spun by their advisers.
Some of the other candidates will clear out of the state by the time voters assemble Monday evening to declare their preferences. A few candidates have skipped Iowa in past campaigns, but there has been nothing to compare to the 2016 contest, which amounts to two campaigns at once, with a handful of candidates focused here and many others on New Hampshire.
A Republican field that began with 17 candidates has suffered a handful of casualties even before the voting begins — candidates buried by Trump’s presence and lacking the financial resources to continue to compete effectively. Among those still competing, the undercard debates have highlighted the cruel power of the polls to separate candidates into an upstairs-downstairs hierarchy.
For many of the candidates still campaigning, the end of the line is near. Iowa and New Hampshire will winnow the field significantly, if history is any guide (though history has been an unreliable guide for much of the past eight months). South Carolina and Nevada will narrow it more. By this time next month, the once-gigantic field could be reduced to three or four viable candidates.
In a matter of days, the voters of Iowa will begin to provide some clarity to the Republican race. The blizzard of polls that have provided fodder for months will pale in comparison with the power of the voters, however large or small the turnout in the caucuses Monday night. The past months have provided an orgy of speculation and ever-changing assessments of the state of the race. After Monday, there will be concrete results that will shape the strategies and the conversation.