DES MOINES, Iowa -- The Republican presidential race entered an alternate universe on Thursday evening, transporting viewers to a moment in time in which Donald Trump never ran for president. Despite the best efforts of his rivals, however, the front-runner’s shadow loomed large -- even though he wasn’t actually present at the Fox News Republican presidential debate.
Trump’s decision to stage a dramatic, last-minute boycott of the event, which was hosted by the news network and Google in Des Moines, allowed candidates to engage in a more meaty -- yet decidedly less entertaining -- affair.
Over and over again, though, the eerie specter of The Donald, who held a counter-rally for veterans at nearby Drake University, was felt on stage.
Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) attempted to dispense with Trump in the opening minutes of the debate, winning points from the audience by mocking the elephant in the room for being a no-show.
"Let me say: I'm a maniac, and everyone on this stage is stupid, fat and ugly. And Ben, you're a terrible surgeon," Cruz said sarcastically, directing his final comment at Ben Carson. "Now that we've gotten the Donald Trump portion out of the way,” Cruz added, garnering a round of laughter from candidates and viewers alike, “I want to thank everyone here for showing the men and women of Iowa the respect to show up and make the case to the people of this state and the people of the country.”
Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush put it more succinctly.
"I kind of miss him,” Bush said. Trump, the governor cheekily added, was “like a teddy bear to me.”
The businessman's influence didn't end there.
Responding to Trump’s proposal to ban all people of Muslim faith from entering the United States in the aftermath of the Paris terror attacks, famed neurosurgeon Ben Carson seemingly agreed, arguing the United States needed “to stop allowing political correctness to dictate our policies, because it's going to kill us if we don't.”
Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), one of few candidates to issue a call to reason, pushed back against anti-Muslim rhetoric by objecting to the notion of closing mosques, which Trump and Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) have suggested in the past. Paul said going forward with such a plan was a “huge mistake.”
Bush echoed the sentiment, and said that disparaging women and Hispanics (as Trump has done) would only produce a “toxic environment in our country.”
Trump’s presence was felt on the issue of immigration as well. In one of the most notable exchanges in the night, Bush and Rubio argued over who changed their stance on granting undocumented immigrants a pathway to citizenship, an issue Trump has brought to the fore with his call to build a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border.
Bush said he had laid out his own immigration plan for legal status, not citizenship, in his book.
"That is the book where you changed your position on immigration," Rubio shot back. "Because you used to support a path to citizenship."
"So did you," Bush retorted. "So did you, Marco."
And in an exchange between Rubio and Cruz, the Florida senator accused his Texas colleague of wanting “to trump Trump on immigration” -- suggesting how far the front-runner has dragged both men to the right in hopes of winning the GOP nomination.
Cruz again followed Trump’s lead on the matter of the war against the so-called Islamic State. Asked whether he still wanted to carpet-bomb ISIS "into oblivion," following Trump’s desire to “bomb the shit out of them,” Cruz doubled down.
"It is not tough talk. It is a different fundamental military strategy than what we've seen from Barack Obama,” he said, dismissing the risk of striking civilians in Iraq and Syria.
Democrats gleefully piled on. "Make no mistake. Donald Trump was on that stage tonight," said Priorities USA, a super PAC supporting Hillary Clinton.
Democratic National Committee Chair Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz said that Trump’s “offensive and out-of-touch message was on full display” in Des Moines, where each candidate “tried to out-Trump each other on anti-immigrant bluster.”
Unfortunately for Fox News, which failed to convince Trump to join the stage, Trump even managed to dominate the conversation online. According to Twitter, the percentage of users who discussed the businessman on its social messaging service stood at 37 percent during the debate, compared to Cruz, who garnered 16 percent of the conversation, and Rubio, who drew 13 percent.
Asked whether Trump’s absence made a difference in the debate, Alex Conant, a spokesman for Rubio, answered in the affirmative.
“We got a lot more time, which was good,” Conant told reporters after the debate.
Even Cruz, who left the debate without speaking to the press, conceded the GOP could not quit Trump.
"He's always with us," he said.
The GOP businessman, meanwhile, took the opportunity to gloat online.
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