DES MOINES, Iowa — The first Republican presidential debate without Donald Trump took on a Trumpian tone nevertheless, with the seven other top candidates here Thursday night at times sounding angry, talking tough and vowing to do away with political correctness.
As the defiant front-runner staged his own counter-program by rallying supporters a few miles away, Trump's absence left a vacuum on the debate stage. From the opening question, it was filled by Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, who has been locked in an intensifying duel with Trump for dominance in Iowa's first-in-the-nation caucuses only four days away.
Cruz began by mocking Trump's reputation for insults: "I'm a 'maniac' and everyone on this stage is 'stupid,' 'fat' and 'ugly.' And Ben, you're a 'terrible surgeon.' Now that we've gotten the Donald Trump portion out of the way . . ."
From there, however, little more was said about Trump, and few direct attacks were leveled at him. That left Cruz as the top target as Sen. Marco Rubio and other opponents sought to puncture his appeal by trying to depict him as an inauthentic conservative.
"The truth is, Ted, throughout this campaign you've been willing to say or do anything in order to get votes," Rubio said. "You want to trump Trump on immigration."
Rubio and Sen. Rand Paul both attacked Cruz for having once supported an amendment that would have granted legal status, not citizenship, for illegal immigrants — though Cruz maintains it was a "poison pill" and that he has always opposed amnesty.
"He is the king of saying, 'Oh, you're for amnesty. Everybody's for amnesty except for Ted Cruz,' " Paul said. "But it's a falseness, and that's an authenticity problem."
Cruz was not the only candidate on the defensive on immigration, however. Rubio also came under fire for his role in the Gang of Eight crafting a comprehensive reform legislation in 2013.
The Fox News Channel moderators tried to challenge both Cruz and Rubio by playing archival video footage of the two senators. After showing the Cruz videos, co-moderator Megyn Kelly asked: "Was that all an act? It was pretty convincing."
In the absence of Trump, Cruz and Rubio had the most to gain or lose in Thursday night's debate. The second- and third-polling candidates in Iowa, Cruz and Rubio's strategies are predicated on being the last non-Trump candidate left standing to face off with the mogul in a long-slog primary season.
Both men emerged with scars.
Rubio appeared to struggle with explaining why he advocated a hard-line immigration approach as a Senate candidate, then pursued comprehensive reform that included a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants, and then reverted.
Rubio said he does not support "blanket amnesty," and focused on the need to seal the border with Mexico and improve security there.
Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush used the exchange to portray Rubio — his one-time protege when Rubio was a Florida state lawmaker — as weak for having reversed positions on immigration. After noting that he supported Rubio's work in the Gang of Eight, Bush said, "He cut and run because it wasn't popular among conservatives, I guess."
"You shouldn't cut and run," Bush said. "You should stick with it. That's exactly what happened. He cut and run, and that's a tragedy."
Rubio countered by saying that Bush had reversed his own position on citizenship and legal status in a book he wrote.
"So did you," Bush snapped back.
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie used the back-and-forth over Senate votes and amendments to show the leadership differences between legislators and executives, and repeating his call for a governor in the White House.
Ben Carson, the retired neurosurgeon who once led the polls but has seen his lead falter among heavy scrutiny of his policy knowhow, invoked his medical career as a credential for the White House: "I've had more 2 a.m. phone calls than everybody here put together, making life and death decisions."