There was a massive Donald Trump-shaped hole on the Republican debate stage in Des Moines last night, much to the dismay of viewers who eagerly hoped that the Republican frontrunner would show up despite announcing earlier this week that he would boycott the event.Trump kept his word following his spat with Fox News and its anchor Megyn Kelly, whom he had accused of being biased against him as a moderator in a previous debate. He steered clear of the contest, opting instead to hold a local fundraiser for veterans groups that he later claimed had raised more than $6 million.Yet despite his absence at the debate, Trump still managed to dominate the discussion onstage.”Before we get to the issues, let’s address the elephant not in the room tonight,” Kelly remarked at the outset to Texas Senator Ted Cruz, asking him how he felt about Trump’s absence. Cruz, who is currently polling neck and neck to Trump in Iowa, tried unsuccessfully to move on.”Let me say I’m a maniac and everyone on this stage is stupid, fat, and ugly,” Cruz responded before turning to Ben Carson. “And Ben, you’re a terrible surgeon. Now that we’ve gotten the Donald Trump portion out of the way…”Thursday was Cruz’s last chance in a major public forum make his pitch to Iowa voters before they caucus on Monday.
But for all of the praise that pundits have heaped on his skills as a debater, Cruz did not emerge as the winner. The Fox moderators pummeled Cruz over his stance opposing ethanol subsidies in Iowa, flip-flopping in the Senate, and even directly questioned him whether he would hurt the Republican Party in later elections if he became the nominee.As the only frontrunner on the stage, Cruz was in for it.”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’…” Cruz griped at moderator Chris Wallace at one point.”It is a debate, sir,” Wallace replied.”Well, no, no,” persisted Cruz. “A debate actually is a policy issue, but I will say this. Gosh, if you guys ask one more mean question I may have to leave the stage.”Cruz won points at a debate hosted by CNBC in October when he confronted the moderators on their line of questioning, saying dismissively, “Everyone home tonight knows that the moderators have no intention of voting in a Republican primary.” But he couldn’t do the same on Thursday, and his fight with the moderators did not endear him to voters, according to veteran Republican pollster Frank Luntz.