Donald Trump dominated the Republican presidential campaign’s biggest night so far Thursday, thanks to his trademark ability to remain the center of political attention even when he’s not even around.
His boycott of a key Republican debate in favor of his own rival event allowed him to stand apart, and perhaps above, the field just four days before Iowa Republicans signal their choice for the party presidential nomination. And it left Ted Cruz, his chief rival, front and center at the debate, where he found himself taking the heat that usually comes Trump’s way.
The duel in Des Moines unfolded on two very different stages. At the stately Iowa Events Center, seven of Trump’s rivals debated before a well-heeled, politely applauding audience of Republican stalwarts, with Cruz, the senator from Texas, the chief target.
Two and a half miles away, about 750 cheering, raucous fans of Trump, the former “Celebrity Apprentice” host gave his rally at Drake University to honor veterans the feel of a rock concert.
Trump took to his own flag-decked stage about 15 minutes after the debate started, the self-appointed star of a rally to raise money for veterans groups. He announced he’d raised more than $5 million for veterans, including his own $1 million contribution.
The real estate mogul opened with a profession of love for veterans and touted some of the contributors, but soon found himself launching into his standard stump speech, complaining about President Barack Obama’s Iran deal and how he’s treated by the media. He boasted of his “amazing polls.”
He also told the audience that he hadn’t wanted to be there.
“I wanted to be about five minutes away,” Trump said, touting his performance in the past debates. “But you have to stick up for your rights when you’re treated badly.”
He compared his decision to skip the debate in protest of slights from debate host Fox News to walking away from what he called a bad deal negotiated with Iran: “We have to stick up for ourselves as people and our country when we’re being mistreated.”
Fox had been “extremely nice,” he said, asking him to attend the debate, but it was too late. He questioned whether the event would hurt or help his campaign, concluding: “Who the hell knows, but it’s for our vets.”
Trump was clearly on the minds of debaters across town. Fox News anchor Megyn Kelly, whose questions at an August debate about Trump’s derogatory comments about women triggered his boycott, asked Cruz about “the elephant not in the room.”
Cruz was ready. “Let me say I’m a maniac and everyone on this stage is stupid, fat and ugly,” said Cruz, sarcastically channeling Trump shots at others. “And Ben,” he said, turning to retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson, “you’re a terrible surgeon.”
Kelly pressed. What, she asked, about his one-time embrace of his rival? Trump and Cruz were friends who avoided criticizing one another. That all has changed as Cruz became a threat to win.
I have not insulted Donald personally and I don't intend to
Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas
He tried some praise, saying he hoped to earn Trump backers’ support. But he wasn’t about to let Trump off that easily. Remember, Cruz said, “there is a difference between personal insults and attacks – between going into the mud with ad hominems and focusing on issues and substance.”
Others picked up the beat, even when the question was not specifically about Trump.
Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., reminded viewers the race was “not about Donald Trump.” Then he called him “an entertaining guy… the greatest show on earth.”
Jeb Bush, the former governor of Florida, tried sarcasm.
“I kind of miss Donald Trump. He was a little teddy bear to me,” Bush said. “We always had such a loving relationship in these debates and in between and the tweets. I kind of miss him. I wish he was here.”
Everybody else was in the witness protection program when I went after him on behalf of what the Republican cause should be
Jeb Bush, former governor of Florida, on his early criticism of Donald Trump
Cruz was clearly the biggest victim of Trump’s absence, though. Rivals attacked him as a come-lately conservative. They noted that though he positions himself as a maverick, he worked in the George W. Bush administration. He was asked about colleagues’ dislike of him.
Cruz was defiant. “The people I have been accountable to every day in the Senate are the 27 million Texans I represent,” he said.
Much of the debate featured the candidates trying to drive home not only their messages, but chisel their identities into the minds of voters just now deciding. Bush and Rubio fought over whether Rubio had abandoned his 2013 support for a path to citizenship as part of an overhaul of immigration policy.
Carson discussed how he’s taken more life-and-death 2 A.M. calls than “everybody here put together.” John Kasich, the governor of Ohio, cited his record of inclusiveness. Bush reminded that he wasn’t necessarily a clone of his brother and father, both former presidents. “This election is not about our pedigree,” he said.
Meanwhile, at Drake, Trump was joined by Republican challengers Mike Huckabee, the former governor of Arkansas, and Rick Santorum, the former U.S. senator from Pennsylvania., after they participated in an earlier debate.
Trump later turned the stage over to John Wayne Walding, a Green Beret who lost the lower part of a leg after being shot by a sniper in Afghanistan in 2008.
He told his personal story of injury and recovery to applause. “Never underestimate the magnitude of what ‘thank you’ means to veterans,” he said.
The rally was vintage Trump, another unique moment for the unorthodox candidate who writes his own rules as he goes along.
“Isn’t this better than that debate that’s going on?” Trump asked the audience. “They’re all sleeping, they’re all sleeping.”