Donald Trump was “the elephant not in the room” as one moderator put it, yet the absentee Republican presidential frontrunner holding a rival event nearby overshadowed the party debate before the first nominating contests.
The very first question that Trump’s bete noire Fox News moderator Megyn Kelly posed at Thursday night’s debate to Ted Cruz, his nearest rival in Iowa four days before the state kicks off the presidential race, was about the real estate mogul.
“Let me say, I’m a maniac,” responded the Texas senator channelling Trump’s barbs. “And everyone on this stage is stupid, fat and ugly and Ben (Carson), you’re a terrible surgeon. Now that we’ve gotten the Donald Trump portion out of the way…”
Florida Senator Marco Rubio said the 2016 presidential campaign is “not about Donald Trump”.
“He’s an entertaining guy, he’s the greatest show on earth,” he said suggesting the focus should be on preventing Democratic frontrunner Hillary Clinton from getting to the White House.
Former Florida governor Jeb Bush, who has been increasingly combative with Trump during the debates, joked that he wished Trump was there. He appeared to take a swipe at his rivals on stage for not taking on Trump as aggressively as he has.
“I kind of miss Donald Trump. He was a little teddy bear to me,” Bush said. “Everybody else was in the witness protection programme when I went after him.”
Cruz, Bush and Rubio were joined on the main debate stage by retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, Ohio governor John Kasich and Kentucky Senator Rand Paul.
On the debate eve Trump abruptly pulled out of the debate alleging Kelly had been unfair to him during the first presidential debate last August when she quizzed him about his past derogatory remarks about women.
Amid an escalating feud with Fox News, Trump held a rally just a couple of miles away at Drake University and said he had raised nearly $6 million for veterans in one day.
Not only did Trump stay away from the debate, two of his rivals on the earlier undercard debate – former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum and former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee, two previous winners of the Iowa caucuses -, attended the billionaire’s event.
In an interview with CNN Thursday aboard his private plane, Trump claimed Fox News “apologized” to him for a mocking statement the television network issued two days before the debate.
Trump said that while the network had “been excellent, they’ve been very nice”, as it tried to woo him back into attending the debate, “it’s too late”.
A Fox News spokesperson acknowledged Roger Ailes, the network’s chief executive, had “three brief conversations” with Trump on Thursday.
Trump, he said, offered to appear at the debate upon the condition that FOX News contribute $5 million to his charities, but Fox News declined.
Trump was even a presence at an earlier undercard debate featuring four lower-polling candidates — Carly Fiorina, Huckabee, Santorum and Jim Gilmore.
Santorum quickly expressed deep frustration with the drama surrounding Trump. “The entire lead-up to this debate was about whether Donald Trump was going to show up to the next debate,” he said.
Meanwhile, new polls in Iowa and New Hampshire, which holds the first primary Feb 9, show Donald Trump sitting comfortably atop the rest of the Republican field.
The Iowa Republican contest has gone from a near-tie between Trump and Cruz earlier this week to an average seven-point advantage for Trump.