The Republican presidential candidates competed vigorously to fill the vacuum created by Donald J. Trump’s boycott of Thursday night’s debate, with Senator Ted Cruz of Texas and Senator Marco Rubio of Florida trading ferocious attacks on immigration and taking fire from rivals seeking advantage in the Iowa caucuses on Monday.
Mr. Cruz and Mr. Rubio, who are behind Mr. Trump in the Iowa polls and hoping for surprise finishes here, were repeatedly confronted with pointed questions about their views and Senate votes on providing citizenship or legal status to immigrants who are in the country illegally. But it was Mr. Cruz who was hit hardest on the issue, as Mr. Rubio teamed up with Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky to portray him as an opportunist.
“Everybody’s for amnesty except for Ted Cruz,” Mr. Paul said, turning Mr. Cruz’s favorite shibboleth against him as he denounced the “falseness” that he said Mr. Cruz perpetrated. “That’s an authenticity problem.”
Mr. Rubio was even harsher as he tries to upset Mr. Cruz here and finish in second place, which could strengthen his position against Mr. Trump in the Feb. 9 New Hampshire primary.
From left, Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey, Ben Carson, Senator Ted Cruz of Texas, Senator Marco Rubio of Florida and Jeb Bush at the start of the Republican presidential debate in Des Moines on Thursday.
“This is the lie that Ted’s campaign is built on,” Mr. Rubio said, seizing on a brutal compilation of video clips that the Fox News debate moderators had shown, highlighting Mr. Cruz’s apparent shifts on immigration.
the candidates poking fun at the absence of the field’s leader, Mr. Trump, it quickly turned conventional as the contenders tried to undercut one another in hopes of gaining favor with Iowa voters.
But the added attention may not have been particularly helpful. There was more time for Mr. Cruz’s image as a consistent conservative to come under relentless attack. There was more time for Mr. Rubio’s past alliance with Democrats on an immigration overhaul to come under scrutiny. There was more time for former Gov. Jeb Bush of Florida and Gov. John Kasich of Ohio to discuss policy, in hopes of helping their chances in New Hampshire, but neither man had particularly electrifying moments.
Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey, playing the Washington outsider, landed some deft attacks against Hillary Clinton, earning applause for promising that he would never let her “get within 10 miles of the White House.” Mr. Paul, who is so far behind in the polls that he did not qualify for the last prime-time debate, was aggressive and passionate as he made the case for his brand of libertarian politics, explaining that he was opposed to abortion rights but would leave the issue to the states. Ben Carson, the retired neurosurgeon, was almost as faded a presence as Mr. Trump.
Still, the debate gave Iowa voters a chance to see all seven men one last time before the caucuses. With a good share of Republicans still undecided or open to changing candidates, the lack of scene-stealing by Mr. Trump, who held his own rally across town, could pay some dividends for the candidates here or in New Hampshire, where many of them are competing for second place after Mr. Trump.
Mr. Cruz, who ascended in the Republican race in part thanks to his effective debate performances, found himself absorbing the fiercest attacks yet as he looked to regain lost ground in Iowa. While Mr. Trump had often been a punching bag at past debates as moderates and rivals challenged his policy ideas, Mr. Cruz became the main target this time around, facing skeptical questions from the moderators on immigration, ethanol subsidies and his personal style.
His rivals were even more severe, painting him as a holier-than-thou politician. “Ted, you worked for George W. Bush’s campaign; you helped design George W. Bush’s immigration policies,” Mr. Rubio said in a rhetorical torrent. “Then, when you got to the Senate, you did an interview with CBS News — it wasn’t even part of the video — where you said, on the issue of people that are here illegally, we can reach a compromise.”
Senator Rand Paul and Gov. Chris Christie at the Republican debate Thursday night in Des Moines.
Yet Mr. Rubio was also a frequent target over his past support for a comprehensive immigration overhaul. Mr. Bush, whose allies have unleashed a multimillion-dollar ad campaign attacking Mr. Rubio over his support for the overhaul, accused him of having “cut and run because it wasn’t popular among conservatives, I guess.”
Mr. Rubio, referring to a book on immigration that Mr. Bush wrote and had just mentioned, quickly returned fire. “That is the book where you changed your position on immigration,” he said, noting that Mr. Bush had moved from supporting a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants to favoring only a path to legal status.
“So did you,” Mr. Bush responded. “So did you, Marco.”
Mr. Trump’s absence was mentioned repeatedly, with Mr. Bush speaking out most forcefully against him. Mr. Trump’s celebrity and pugnacity had turned previous debates into widely watched spectacles that frequently descended into shouting matches, dueling insults and, in Mr. Trump’s case, frequent mockery of his rivals as listless, flailing and even ugly.
Megyn Kelly, left, the Fox News moderator to whom Donald J. Trump objected, labeled him “the elephant not in the room.”
Megyn Kelly, the Fox News talk-show host whose participation on Thursday night was Mr. Trump’s reason for skipping the event, began the questioning by noting “the elephant not in the room” and lobbed a softball question to Mr. Cruz about the missing Mr. Trump. It gave him a prime opportunity at the top of the debate, when the most viewers were watching, to speak directly to Iowans with the caucuses nearly at hand. He portrayed Mr. Trump as an unserious insult artist not fit for high office.
“I’m a maniac, and everyone on this stage is stupid, fat and ugly — and Ben, you’re a terrible surgeon,” Mr. Cruz said, recalling some of Mr. Trump’s gibes, including his suggestion that Ben Carson, a renowned neurosurgeon, had been a mediocre physician.
“Now that we’ve gotten the Donald Trump portion out of the way,” Mr. Cruz continued, before being interrupted by laughter and applause, “I want to thank everyone here for showing the men and women of Iowa the respect to show up.”
Yet Mr. Bush mocked his Republican rivals for trying to act tough against Mr. Trump, noting that he had been the first to wrangle with Mr. Trump in last year’s debates. “Everyone else was in the witness protection program when I went after him,” Mr. Bush said.
While poking fun at Mr. Trump was a recurring theme of the night, Mrs. Clinton was a more serious target, as the candidates tried to showcase themselves to Iowans as her strongest foes. Mr. Rubio, briskly dismissive of Mr. Trump (“He’s an entertaining guy”), pivoted to Mrs. Clinton and warned that she would continue President Obama’s agenda, as she has promised to do. He noted that Mrs. Clinton had even indicated this week that she would consider appointing Mr. Obama to the Supreme Court.
“Hillary Clinton cannot win this election,” Mr. Rubio said.
Mr. Christie, who has not been shy about lashing his Republican rivals at past debates, also trained his fire on Mrs. Clinton as he tried to project a positive message about Republican leadership. Asked whether Mr. Cruz and Mr. Paul were qualified to be president in light of their support for curbs on the National Security Agency’s surveillance practices, Mr. Christie quickly said he disagreed with their views and then moved on.
“Let me tell you what the country should really be worried about,” Mr. Christie said, before bringing up Mrs. Clinton’s email practices as secretary of state.
While the concerns and values of Iowans were an ongoing motif at the Iowa Events Center here, with the debate coming four days before the caucuses, several candidates who are far behind in the polls sought to look beyond the Iowa vote. Mr. Bush brought up the needs of New Hampshire voters. Mr. Kasich, also hoping to appeal to viewers in New Hampshire as much as in Iowa, argued that he would be the best steward of the nation’s economy, given his record of creating jobs and a budget surplus in his state, and even trumpeted the New Hampshire-area newspaper endorsements he had won.
Mr. Paul, hoping for a surprise performance in Iowa or New Hampshire, made some of the sharpest attacks against the Republicans on the stage with him. Trying to appeal to both libertarian-leaning Republicans and the broader conservative primary electorate, Mr. Paul called a past suggestion from Mr. Rubio that the country might have to consider shutting down mosques “a huge mistake,” but also attacked Mr. Rubio for his support of an immigration overhaul in 2013.
“He made a deal with Chuck Schumer that he would oppose any conservative amendments,” Mr. Paul said, referring to a Democratic senator from New York and noting that he had tried to file an amendment to the bill. “Marco can’t have it both ways. You can’t be in favor of defending us from radical Islam if you’re not supporting border security.”
Mr. Rubio said that Mr. Paul’s amendment had been wrongheaded and added, “When I am the president of the United States, if we don’t know who you are and why you’re trying to come to the United States, you’re not going to get in.”
After hovering in single digits for months in Iowa, Mr. Rubio has moved into the teens in recent surveys. And his assertiveness on stage Thursday, combined with the absence of Mr. Trump and the assault on Mr. Cruz, may have offered an much-needed lift to his campaign here.
Conscious of the Iowa evangelical voters still up for grabs, Mr. Rubio twice spoke emphatically about his Christianity, saying his faith would play a central role were he to be president and in another instance referring to “Jesus Christ, who came down to earth and died for our sins.”
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