Almost all of the discussion about Thursday’s night’s Republican presidential debate on Fox News prior to its start was on the man who wasn’t there. And, indeed, it’s likely that a lot of the viewers were switching to CNN during the commercials looking to see what Donald Trump was up to in his competing event. The answer to that question was not much and all most of us saw was him being talked over by the network’s talking heads. But Trump’s absence created a more thoughtful environment for the remaining candidates and what that produced was perhaps the most substantive debate on the issues the Republicans have held so far. But while anyone predicting exactly how the performances of the non-Trumps will impact the voting in Iowa on Monday is merely guessing, the plain fact is that none of those on display emerged as a clear winner of the evening.
Does that mean that Trump won by not showing up? We don’t know. Whether giving the voters an opportunity to watch the others without him there to insult or bully them will wind up being a fatal error is something that won’t be known until Monday night. The rules of the 2016 race so far have amounted to there being no rules other than whatever Trump says or does tends to work. But the absence of Trump did give us something of an answer to a counter-factual question about what the GOP race would look like if Trump had decided to do another season of “The Apprentice” rather than run for president. The short answer is that it is a more level playing field even if the men currently in the number two and three spots in the national polls — Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio — still seem to be the two strongest candidates.
But Trump’s decision to boycott the debate because of his unseemly feud with Fox News’ Megyn Kelly didn’t help Cruz and Rubio as much as one might have thought. That’s because instead of the focus being on Trump and his attempts to skewer his opponents, the other candidates concentrated more fire on them than anyone else.
Indeed, if anyone came out of the evening ahead it was Kelly due to her tough questioning of all comers. In particular, her use of video clips showing how both Rubio and Cruz flip-flopped on immigration was devastating. Cruz did a slightly better job wiggling out of the trap than Rubio, but both had to spend more time explaining themselves than they would have liked. That allowed both Jeb Bush and Chris Christie to score some points at their expense. Watching Kelly batter Rubio and Cruz, it was hard not to think that Trump had probably been wise to avoid being confronted with a video montage of his embarrassing and contradictory statements. In this case, Trump may have proved that sometimes discretion really is the better part of valor.
But even if we agree that neither of the two leading non-Trumps gained ground in the absence of the Donald, that was also true of everyone else. Though Bush had perhaps his best debate and was able to score some points against Rubio — the man he seems intent on destroying even if doesn’t advance his own unlikely prospects — his lackluster style still held him back. Christie was also good but didn’t get enough opportunities to gain much of an advantage. The same could be said for Rand Paul, who was able to get in a couple of good sound bytes about liberty, but still found himself being eclipsed among Tea Partiers and libertarians by Cruz.
As for the other two candidates on stage, they were similarly frustrated. John Kasich continued to harp on his lengthy resume, a stance that seems at odds with what voters are most interested in this year. Ben Carson made no impression at all, leading one to wonder how much longer his faltering campaign will continue to putter along.
If the polls are accurate then it’s far from clear that anyone can stop Trump from running the table. That’s especially true if the next 11 days don’t produce results that force much of the field to withdraw to allow at least one or two viable alternatives to the frontrunner to emerge.
But Thursday night nevertheless provided Republican voters with an understanding that Cruz and Rubio are the most dynamic and articulate members of a strong GOP field that seems to do better if allowed to operate without Trump’s bigger-than-life personality overshadowing them. Although both Cruz and Rubio took hits, they also showed why they are the class of the non-Trumps. Each had moments when they proved their worth: Rubio when discussing foreign policy and Cruz explaining why he opposes ethanol subsidies. In an alternative universe where Trump had not the captured the imagination of a critical mass of Republican voters, it would be interesting to see which of them could catch fire and/or ultimately prevail in the coming weeks. But unless the voters of Iowa, New Hampshire, and the other early voting states decide to throw the pollsters a curve and punish Trump for his arrogant decision to avoid the seventh GOP debate, we may never find out the answer to that question.