DES MOINES — The main Republican debate has begun in Iowa, but without front-runner Donald Trump – who earlier Thursday evening reaffirmed that he would boycott the event, as part of his continuing feud with host network Fox News Channel.
Despite his lack of physical presence, Trump very much was part of the scene.
“Let’s address the elephant not in the room tonight,” said Fox News Channel moderator Megyn Kelly, whose removal from the stage Trump had tried – and failed – to secure. In a question to Sen. Ted Cruz (Tex.), Kelly noted that Trump had not shown up: “What message do you think that sends” to Iowans?, Kelly said.
Cruz, who had become the stage’s front-runner by default when Trump dropped out, responded with a joke.
“I’m a maniac. And everyone on this stage is stupid, fat and ugly. And Ben, you’re a terrible surgeon,” Cruz said, meaning retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson. “Now that we’ve gotten the Donald Trump portion out of the way…” Cruz thanked the others on the stage for having “the respect to show up” and make their case to Iowans in person.
For the seven candidates on stage, this first Trump-less debate could provide a new chance to stand out, or to attack the bombastic billionaire who has so far managed to overshadow a stable of better-credentialed politicians. This is the last televised debate before Monday’s Iowa caucuses, and it is especially crucial for Cruz, Trump’s closest rival in this early-voting state.
The other candidates in the main-event debate will be retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson, who had once challenged Trump for the lead in Iowa but then faded; Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida; former Florida governor Jeb Bush; New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie; Ohio Gov. John Kasich; and Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky.
Many of them, having little chance in Iowa, may be aiming already at the (theoretically) more-moderate, establishment-friendly voters in New Hampshire, although Trump is way ahead of them there, too. The New Hampshire primary is Feb. 9.
Trump said Thursday evening that he would make good on his promise to boycott the debate. “No, I’m not doing it,” Trump said, after calling reporters to his private plane for a special media availability – in which Trump essentially said that nothing had changed.
He appeared eager to needle Fox News, saying the network’s top executives had been calling him every 15 minutes, and that he had spoken to Rupert Murdoch, the chairman of Fox’s parent company, News Corp., just minutes before.
“The time to change my mind would have been two days ago,” Trump said. He said it was too late now.
Instead, Trump will appear at his own rally in another part of Des Moines, which he said would honor veterans – but would also give Trump a platform to counterprogram the very debate he is skipping. Trump said he had already donated $1 million of his own money to veterans causes and raised a total of $5 million for them.
At the center of the dispute was Trump’s long-standing disdain for Fox anchor Megyn Kelly, who Trump has frequently accused of being biased against him after a tough line of questioning during the first GOP debate in August. Those tensions escalated Saturday amid a push by the campaign to have Kelly removed from the debate during a telephone call Saturday between Trump’s campaign manager, Corey Lewandowski, and a Fox network executive.
Fox News responded with a series of press releases that angered the billionaire: “We’re very surprised he’s willing to show that much fear about being questioned by Megyn Kelly,” the statement from Fox said.
Elsewhere in Des Moines, the night’s first “undercard” debate began at 7 p.m. as planned, and its early minutes focused on Trump. The low-polling candidates onstage lamented that Trump had taken so much of the media’s attention away from them.
“This debate was called the undercard debate. The undercard debate. It wasn’t advertised significantly,” said former senator Rick Santorum (Pa.), in his first chance to speak in the debate. He lamented that Fox News had spent the previous hour talking about whether Trump would follow up on a threat to stay away. “An entertainer” had captured everyone’s attention, Santorum said. “The entire lead-up to this debate was about whether Donald Trump was going to show up for the next debate.”
Santorum, who won the Iowa caucuses in 2012, expressed frustration that he had not had the same success this time around. He blamed the media, who he said had marginalized him by refusing to ask voters about him in opinion polls, and by relegating him to undercard debates like this one. “Trying to segregate and take Iowans out of the process,” Santorum said, meaning that the media had not allowed Iowans a fair chance to evaluate him this time around.
Later, Santorum said he had made 700 political appearances in Iowa over the last five years.
Former Virginia governor Jim Gilmore, the lowest-polling candidate in the undercard, complained of a conspiracy to sideline him, to benefit other candidates on the undercard stage.
“There are powerful forces that are really controlling our lives,” Gilmore said. “The biggest one is the organized establishment media. And I just noticed, just now, you gave Carly Fiorina two one-minute answers in a row.”
Gilmore had been kept out of the past five undercards because his poll numbers were so low. But moderator Bill Hemmer pointed out that Gilmore had not even appeared in Iowa to campaign until a week ago.
“This is not the place where I choose to begin my campaign. I am beginning my campaign in New Hampshire,” Gilmore said.
He also took a shot at Santorum and former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee, who were both scheduled to appear at the Trump rally later in the evening. Gilmore said that he came from a humble background: his father was a meat-cutter at Safeway, his mother a secretary. “I’m not about to go across and carry the coat for some billionaire,” Gilmore said.
Rather than addressing Trump’s absence, Fiorina, the former tech executive, attacked Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton, calling her dishonest and saying that Clinton deserved to be “in the Big House” for her use of a personal e-mail server to handle government data. The Big House is a euphemism for prison.