GOP hopefuls can’t skip deriding absent Trump
Front- running businessman misses debate over feud with Fox News
des moines, iowa » Absent Donald Trump, the Republican presidential candidates strained to take advantage of a rare opportunity to step out of the front- runner’s shadow in Thursday night’s debate — a staid, policy- heavy contest that offered a glimpse of what the GOP contest might have been without the unpredictable businessman.
Still, the candidates couldn’t resist mocking Trump for boycotting the final debate before Iowa kicks off voting in the 2016 campaign on Monday.
Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, who is locked in a tight contest with Trump in Iowa, opened the debate with a sarcastic impression of the real estate mogul’s frequent insults of his opponents.
“I’m a maniac, and everyone on this stage is stupid, fat and ugly,” Cruz said. Then he thanked his fellow candidates for showing Iowa voters respect by taking part.
Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, a frequent target of Trump’s, said with a wry smile, “I kind of miss Donald Trump; hewas a teddy bear to me.”
Never one to go quietly, Trump was holding what his team called a “Special Event to Benefit Veterans Organizations” at a packed 775- seat auditorium at nearby Drake University instead.
“You have to stick up for your rights. When you’re treated badly, you have to stick up for your rights,” Trump told the crowd. “We have to stick up for ourselves as people, and we have to stick up for our country if we’re being mistreated.”
Speaking fromthe stage at what felt like a cross between a televised fundraising telethon and a typical Trump campaign rally, Trump said his foundation already had raised between $ 5 million and $ 6 million for veterans since announcing the event. He said he’s putting up $ 1 million of his own money and read off the names of wealthy friends he said had pledged major contributions.
Trump repeated earlier statements that Fox News “very much” wanted him to attend the debate and said he had fielded repeated phone calls from the network during the day. Fox News issued a statement saying Trump had offered to appear at the debate upon the condition that Fox News contribute $ 5 million to his charities, which the network said was not possible.
Trump’s absence put the spotlight on Cruz, as well as on Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, who needs a strong showing in Iowa in order to stay in the top tier of candidates.
The two senators were confronted with video clips suggesting they had changed their positions on immigration, one of the most contentious issues among Republicans. While each insisted the other had flip- flopped, both denied they had switched their own views on allowing some people in the U. S. illegally to stay.
Cruz accused Rubio of making a “politi-
cally advantageous” decision to support a 2013 Senate bill that included a pathway to citizenship, while the Florida senator said his rival was “willing to say or do anything to get votes.”
“This is the lie that Ted’s campaign is built on,” Rubio said. “That he’s the most conservative guy.”
In a rare standout debate moment for Bush, the former Florida governor sharply sided with Cruz in accusing Rubio of having “cut and run” on the Senate immigration bill.
“He cut and ran because it wasn’t popular with conservatives,” said Bush.
Cruz was put on the spot over his opposition to ethanol subsidies that support Iowa’s powerful corn industry — a position that has long been considered politically untenable for presidential candidates in the state.
The Texas senator cast his position as an effort to keep the government from picking economic winners and losers.
With their White House hopes on the line, the candidates worked hard to pres- ent themselves as best prepared to be commander in chief and take on terror threats.
Rubio struck an aggressive posture, pledging that as president hewould go after terrorists “wherever they are. And if we capture them alive, they are going to Guantanamo.” Rubio also stood by his previous calls for shutting down mosques in theU. S if therewere indications that the Muslim religious centers were being used to radicalize terrorists.
Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul — back on the main debate stage after being downgraded to an undercard event because of low poll numbers earlier this month — warned against closing down mosques. A proponent of a more isolationist foreign policy, Paul also raised concerns about the U. S. getting involved militarily in Syria, where the Islamic State terrorist group has a stronghold.
The candidates focused some of their most pointed attacks on Democratic front- runner Hillary Clinton.
“She is not qualified to be president of the United States,” New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie said.
Christie is part of a crowded field of more mainstream candidates who have struggled to break through in an election year where Trump, and increasingly Cruz, have tapped into voter anger with the political system. Party leaders have grown increasingly eager for some of the more traditional candidates to step aside to allow one to rise up and challenge for the nomination.
Asked whether the crowded establishment lane was putting Trump in position to win, Bush said, “We’re just starting out. The first vote hasn’t been counted. Why don’t we let the process work?”
Bush also defended the flurry of critical advertisements his well- funded super PAC has launched against Rubio and other rivals.
“It’s called politics,” Bush said. “That’s the way it is. I’m running hard.”
Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump poses Thursday with a ring given to him by a group of veterans during a campaign event on the campus of Drake University in DesMoines, Iowa. Jae C. Hong, The Associated Press
From left, Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio and Jeb Bush listen to a question from moderator ChrisWallace, front right, during a Republican presidential primary debate, Thursday. Chris Carlson, The Associated Press