THE BLOG
01/29/2016 10:47 am ET Updated Jan 29, 2017

The Fox News Debate

JIM WATSON via Getty Images

Donald Trump won Thursday night's Republican debate by not participating, and Texas Senator Ted Cruz failed to capitalize on Trump's absence. Meanwhile, it is unlikely that the debate, hosted by Fox News, will have an impact on Monday's Iowa Caucus.

If you missed the first couple minutes of the debate you missed Cruz's best moment. Fox News anchor Megyn Kelly asked Cruz about "the elephant not in the room," referring to Trump's absence. "Let me say I'm a maniac and everyone on stage is stupid, fat and ugly. And Ben (Carson), you're a terrible surgeon," Cruz responded. "Now that we've gotten the Donald Trump portion out of the way," he said as the audience laughed.

The bad news for Cruz was that because Trump wasn't present to take incoming from all the challengers, Cruz became the target of attacks from most of the other candidates. Cruz found himself in a defensive posture, which is a position he clearly hates to be in. That may explain his Trump-like whining answer directed at Fox News anchor Chris Wallace. "Chris, I would note that that the last four questions have been, 'Rand, please attack Ted. Marco, please attack Ted. Chris, please attack Ted. Jeb, please attack Ted,'" he complained. "Gosh, if you guys ask one more mean question I may have to leave the stage." Cruz's feeble attempt at humor seemed more like an unforced error.

Florida Senator Marco Rubio, whose answers mostly seemed pre-planned, and whose tone was mostly self-righteous, seized on the Cruz bobble in a subsequent response. "Don't worry, I'm not leaving the stage no matter what you ask me," he said to Wallace, who then said, "Good." Rubio, who trails in recent polls of likely Iowa Caucus goers, clearly targeted Cruz's strong support among evangelical Christian conservatives. "When I'm president, I can tell you this, my faith will not just influence the way I'll govern as president, it will influence the way I live my life," Rubio said. "Because in the end, my goal is not simply to live on this earth for 80 years, but to live an eternity with my creator. And I will always allow my faith to influence everything I do."

But Rubio, who put on a strong performance, found himself extremely vulnerable on the issue of immigration. Moderator Kelly asked Rubio, "Within two years of getting elected you were co-sponsoring legislation to create a path to citizenship, in your words, amnesty. Haven't you already proven that you cannot be trusted on this issue?" Rubio protested, "No, I said I do not support blanket amnesty!" But former Florida Governor Jeb Bush piled on. "I'm kind of confused because he was the sponsor of the Gang of Eight bill that did require a bunch of thresholds but ultimately allowed for citizenship over an extended period of time. I mean, that's a fact. And he asked me to support that. And I -- I supported him because I think people, when you're elected, you need to do things," Bush observed.

Cruz also found himself vulnerable on the immigration issue. Kelly asked him, "When Senator Rubio proposed that bill creating a path to citizenship, you proposed an amendment. It would have allowed for legalization but not citizenship.... Pressed last month on why you supported legalization, you claimed that you didn't. Right?" Cruz strained for an answer, "You know, the amendment you're talking about is one sentence -- it's 38 words...it said anyone here illegally is permanently ineligible for citizenship. It didn't say a word about legalization." But then Kelly noted, "But the bill allowed both. The bill you were amending allowed citizenship and legalization."

Senator Rand Paul, who had a pretty good night, jumped in on the immigration discussion. "I was there and I saw the debate. I saw Ted Cruz say, 'we'll take citizenship off the table, and then the bill will pass, and I'm for the bill.'" he asserted. "The bill would involve legalization. He can't have it both ways. But what is particularly insulting, though, is that he is the king of saying, 'you're for amnesty.' Everybody's for amnesty except for Ted Cruz." This set up Rubio's best line of the night. "This is the lie that Ted's campaign is built on, and Rand touched upon it -- that he's the most conservative guy, and everyone else is a -- you know, everyone else is a rhino." Rubio said. "The truth is, Ted, throughout this campaign, you've been willing to say or do anything in order to get votes."

Meanwhile, a few miles away Donald Trump hosted a fundraiser for the military veterans. Trump told the enthusiastic audience of 1,500 he would rather have been at the debate but he had to stand up for principle. In a surprise, Republican candidates Mike Huckabee and Rick Santorum, who had just finished the "undercard" GOP debate, dropped in on the Trump gathering in support the veterans. Trump claims to have raised about $6 million through the event.

There is no question that by ducking the debate Trump avoided being the target of strong attacks from his opponents, all of whom would have wanted to take down the frontrunner. Instead, Cruz became the target for many attacks and he did not have a very good night. Ironically, Bush had his best debate performance in large part because Trump wasn't there to make him anxious.

This debate, coming just three days before the Iowa Caucus, could have been a pivotal moment for each candidate. Cruz needs to win in Iowa to stop Trump's momentum. Success in the caucus depends on his ability to mobilize his supporters. But Cruz did not help himself with his uneven debate performance, and Trump did not hurt himself by not attending. In fact, Marco Rubio may have helped himself to some of Cruz's supporters. Stay tuned!