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OpinionColumnistsMichael Dobie

How the GOP debate went without Donald Trump

Republican presidential candidates (L-R) New Jersey Gov. Chris

Republican presidential candidates (L-R) New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, talk after the Republican presidential primary debate, Thursday, Jan. 28, 2016, in Des Moines, Iowa. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall) Photo Credit: AP

Did you miss him?
Oh, Donald Trump was there, hovering in spirit, but not in his accustomed spot smack in the middle of the stage at last night’s Republican presidential debate.
And the evening suffered from his absence. Perhaps these affairs were inevitably going to go this direction, with candidates repeating themselves endlessly, stating positions we’ve heard many times before, deflecting questions they didn’t want to answer in favor of ones that served them better, with listeners learning very little new about any of the seven men on the stage.
Perhaps Trump’s sideshow distracted us from that for a while, covering it up by compelling us to wait for his latest barb.

In truth, neither did particularly well without the other last night, with the Iowa caucuses only four days away.
As the debate unfolded at the Iowa Events Center in Des Moines, Trump was a few miles away at Drake University, perhaps a little unmoored himself, at an event carried live by other cable networks. His event was subdued, especially by Trump’s standards. A few outbursts from protesters who were shouted down by Trump supporters offered the most excitement. The GOP frontrunner skipped the debate because, he said, co-moderator Megyn Kelly was unfair in the party’s first Fox News tangle.
So the billionaire recited an honor roll of even wealthier friends, most from New York, who contributed to the evening’s cause, helping veterans, then turned the microphone over to 2008 Iowa caucus winner former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee and 2012 champ Rick Santorum, a former senator from Pennsylvania. Both had trundled over after competing in Fox News’ preliminary debate, both men validating Trump among the evangelical base, one that his chief rival in Iowa, Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, needs desperately to win next week.
The debate, at least, had its share of memorable exchanges, even without Trump.
The best was the back-and-forth between Florida Sen. Marco Rubio and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush on immigration. It was set off by the evening’s one bit of genuine ingenuity — Fox’ use of video clips of candidates voicing policies they no longer hold, in this case Rubio’s words on illegal immigration — and featured Bush lamenting his former protege’s shift away from a pathway to citizenship. Rubio tried to parse out his stance, but Bush got the last word, saying plaintively, “You shouldn’t have cut and run ... That’s a tragedy.”
And there were a couple colorful comments about Trump himself, which the master of the personal insult must have secretly appreciated. None was better than the evening’s opening foray from Cruz. He called himself a maniac, labeled everyone else on stage “stupid, fat and ugly,” and said Ben Carson was a terrible surgeon, then added, “Now that we’ve gotten the Donald Trump portion out of the way, I want to thank everyone here for showing the men and women of Iowa the respect of showing up.”
While Trump was doing nothing at his event to turn off devoted fans or attract doubters, the same was true of his competitors.
Rubio was as angry as ever with no modulation, ending nearly every answer with “when I’m elected president of the United States.” Bush and Ohio Gov. John Kasich are still experienced and proven problem-solvers, Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul still has passionate followers who go crazy after every comment, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie still can’t talk for more than 15 seconds without vowing to prosecute Hillary Clinton, and Carson still has an unmatched capacity for occasional unintelligibility.
And none of them thinks Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont will be the Democratic presidential nominee.
The numbness that left in a viewer leads to a question: Is the era of the staged debate over? Or perhaps, it’s the era of repeated stage debates that’s over. Whatever party is your persuasion, you must admit the Democratic town hall format three nights earlier was more effective at illuminating those candidates’ positions, and their differences.
But given that format — a full half-hour or 45 minutes of pointed questions and follow-ups that required detailed answers and policy descriptions — it’s likely Trump might find a reason to skip that as well.
Lane Filler contributed to this blog post.