Donald Trump's absence from the 7th Republican debate brightened the spotlight Thursday on his main GOP rivals, Senators Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio, as the Iowa caucus looms near.
Rubio and Cruz engaged in a lengthy debate on immigration, one of the most contentious issues among Republicans. Both have been accused of shifting their stances on legalizing some of those in the United States illegally, a position opposed by many GOP voters.
Cruz accused Rubio of making a "politically advantageous" decision to support a 2013 Senate bill that included a pathway to citizenship, while the Florida senator said his rival was "willing to say or do anything to get votes."
Trump decided to boycott the debate – which comes at a crucial time because of Feb. 1 caucus – saying that he felt the Fox News Channel was not fair to him. Fox defended its tough questioning of him, as well as others, during the debates, saying it was the role of journalists to challenge presidential candidates.
In a rare standout debate moment for Jeb Bush, the former Florida governor sharply sided with Cruz in accusing Rubio of having "cut and run" on the Senate immigration bill.
Video clips shown by moderators of past statements Ted Cruz has made about immigration led to a heated exchange.
The clips showed Cruz claiming he would support immigration reform legislation if some of his amendments had been approved. But at the debate, Cruz said his intention was to ensure people in the country illegally couldn't gain legal status.
Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky responded that Cruz claims that only he is "perfect" on immigration issues.
Rubio jumped into the exchange, calling Cruz's comment about his superiority on immigration "the lie that Ted's campaign is built upon."
Given the importance of immigration to Republicans, Rubio said Cruz is trying to "out-Trump Trump" on immigration. Trump has called for the removal of all people in the country illegally.
Cruz said Rubio is charming and smooth but that when both men ran for the U.S. Senate, they each promised to fight amnesty. Cruz said only he was true to his word.
Absent Trump, the Republican presidential candidates strained to take advantage of a rare opportunity to step out of the front-runner's shadow in Thursday night's debate — a policy-heavy contest that offered a glimpse of what the GOP contest might have been without the unpredictable businessman.
Still, the candidates couldn't resist mocking Trump for boycotting the final debate before Iowa kicks off voting in the 2016 campaign on Monday.
Cruz, who is locked in a tight contest with Trump in Iowa, opened the debate with a sarcastic impression of the real estate mogul's frequent insults of his opponents.
"I'm a maniac and everyone on this stage is stupid, fat and ugly," Cruz said. Then he thanked his fellow candidates for showing Iowa voters respect by showing up.
Bush, a frequent target of Trump, said with a wry smile, "I kind of miss Donald Trump; he was a teddy bear to me."
Never one to go quietly, Trump was holding a competing rally elsewhere in Des Moines, an event his campaign said was raising money for military veterans.
"When you're treated badly, you have to stick up for your rights," Trump said in explaining he was skipping the debate because he felt Fox News had dealt with him unfairly. Broadening his point, he said, "We have to stick up for ourselves as people and we have to stick up for our country if we're being mistreated."
With their White House hopes on the line, the candidates worked hard to cast themselves as best prepared to be commander in chief and take on terror threats emanating both from abroad and within the United States.
Rubio struck an aggressive posture, pledging that as president he would go after terrorists "wherever they are. And if we capture them alive, we're sending them to Guantanamo." Rubio also stood by his previous calls for shutting down mosques in the U.S if there were indications that the Muslim religious centers were being used to radicalize terrorists.
Paul — back on the main debate stage after being downgraded to an undercard event because of low poll numbers earlier this month — warned against closing down mosques. A proponent of a more isolationist foreign policy, Paul also raised concerns about the U.S. getting involved militarily in Syria, where the Islamic State group has a stronghold.
The candidates largely sidestepped direct confrontations with each other, focusing some of their most pointed attacks on Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton.
"She is not qualified to be president of the United States," New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie said. "What we need is someone on that stage who has been tested who has been through it."
Christie is part of a crowded field of more mainstream candidates who have struggled to break through in an election year where Trump, and increasingly Cruz, have tapped into voter anger with the political system. Party leaders have grown increasingly antsy for some of the more traditional candidates to step aside after the first contests to allow one to rise up and challenge for the nomination.
Asked whether the crowded establishment lane was putting Trump in position to be the nominee, Bush said, "We're just starting out. The first vote hasn't been counted. Why don't we let the process work?"
Bush also defended the flurry of critical advertisements his well-funded super PAC has launched against Rubio and other rivals.
"It's called politics," Bush said. "That's the way it is. I'm running hard."
It's unclear whether Trump's unusual move will hurt his standing with Iowa voters. But his absence did give his rivals more time to make their case to voters.
.Based on reporting by The Associated Press.
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