Donald Trump says he’s skipping tonight’s GOP presidential debate in Des Moines, Iowa, but the billionaire real estate developer and reality show star is very much be a presence — before, during and after the event, sponsored by Fox News and Google.
In pre-debate coverage, Trump gave an interview to CNN this afternoon, saying that Fox News apologized for issuing a statement on Tuesday that mocked his threat to pull out.
His GOP rivals will probably have something to say on the debate stage about his decision to skip the event, while Trump will be counter-programming, as he holds a rally at Drake University at the same time.
On Friday, there will be plenty of attention to what ratings Fox News gets for the first Trump-less debate. The numbers could shed light on just what is drawing viewers in record numbers to the debates this election cycle.
Following along with live updates below:
9:09 p.m.: ‘The elephant not in the room.’ The candidates are asked to address the absence of Trump right off the bat, and they have come prepared. Ted Cruz, Trump’s chief rival in the Iowa polls, says, to laughs, “I am a maniac and everyone on this stage is stupid and ugly, and Ben [Carson], you are a terrible surgeon. Now that we have gotten the Donald Trump portion out of the way.” Jeb Bush, languishing in the polls, says sarcastically, “I kind of miss Donald Trump. He was a Teddy Bear to me.” But he also tries to point out how he has tried to strike back at Trump at previous gatherings while others did not. “Everyone was in the witness protection program when I went after him.”
9:18 p.m.: Defeating ISIS. Trump is taking the stage at the veterans event just as the candidates at the Fox News/Google debate are asked about defeating ISIS. Cruz defends his pledge to “carpet bomb” to defeat ISIS. Marco Rubio doesn’t take this opportunity to criticize Cruz, but says that ISIS can’t be defeated with a military that has been diminished.
9:25 p.m.: Ben Carson’s Chance. It seems like a long, long time ago when Ben Carson was ascendant, and this debate may be one of his last chances to recapture momentum. Without Trump on the stage, he is trying to lay claim to the label of anti-establishment candidate. “I have had more 2 a.m. phone calls than everyone on this stage put together.” He calls the state of the race an “abnormal situation,” i.e. anything is possible. That may be an understatement.
9:31 p.m.: Ted Cruz Next to Go? Cruz is perturbed over the questions, noting that they have been directed at his rivals in a way designed to get them to attack him. “If you guys ask one more mean question, I may need to leave the stage,” he says. Cruz has attacked the nature of moderators’ questions before, so it is not entirely surprising. But Rubio gets a comeback. “Don’t worry, I will not leave the stage no matter what you ask me.” The exchange actually started with a question to Jeb Bush, and how he would learn from the foreign policy mistakes made by his brother. The question actually drew boos from the audience, and he never directly addressed it.
9:38 p.m. The Questions. Ted Cruz may protest, but so far many of the questions have been what they should be — direct and specific. Co-moderator Megyn Kelly asks John Kasich about encryption “backdoors,” which has been a hot issue in the tech community, national security officials and privacy advocates. John Kasich, who is probably offering the sunniest message of all the candidates, nevertheless suggests that public debate should not include this issue, implying that it is an important weapon in the war on terror. “It will get solved,” he says, even as Kelly notes that the issue has been the subject of extensive public testimony.
9:48 p.m. Federal spending. Bret Baier asks Chris Christie where he would cut federal spending, beyond the cliche of “waste, fraud and abuse.” Christie’s answer: Planned Parenthood funding. Baier asks him if there is anything bigger than that. “I can’t think of anything bigger than that,” Christie says. While his position is popular among the GOP electorate, it may play differently in a general election, given that polls show popular support for funding.
Cruz then gets a red meat question about Obamacare, and he responds by trying to top even his past vows of getting rid of Obama’s signature domestic policy achievement.
“We will repeal every word of Obamacare,” Cruz says, adding that he would like to see a “true 50-state marketplace” in which health insurance can be purchased across state lines, as well as expanding health savings accounts. He also says he’d like to “delink health insurance from employment” to make it “personal, portable and affordable.” He didn’t explain exactly how he would do that.
10:00 p.m.: $5 Million Offer. Fox News says that Roger Ailes had three conversations with Trump today, but says nothing about an apology being given. It also says that Trump demanded $5 million to appear at the debate this evening, with the proceeds going to his charities, and Fox News declined.
Here’s the full Fox News statement:
“Roger Ailes had three brief conversations with Donald Trump today about possibly appearing at the debate – there were not multiple calls placed by Ailes to Trump. In the course of those conversations, we acknowledged his concerns about a satirical observation we made in order to quell the attacks on Megyn Kelly, and prevent her from being smeared any further.
“Furthermore, Trump offered to appear at the debate upon the condition that Fox News contribute $5 million to his charities. We explained that was not possible and we could not engage in a quid pro quo, nor could any money change hands for any reason. In the last 48 hours, we’ve kept two issues at the forefront — we would never compromise our journalistic standards and we would always stand by our journalist, Megyn Kelly. We have accomplished those two goals and we are pleased with the outcome. We’re very proud to have her on stage as a debate moderator alongside Bret Baier and Chris Wallace.”
10:04 p.m.: Immigration reform. Something new at the debates so far this season: Fox News is running video footage of past statements from Rubio and Cruz in which they make statements that seem to conflict with their present hardline views on immigration reform. After Rubio’s clip, it sets off an exchange between him and Bush in which Bush presses him on why he once supported an avenue for citizenship but doesn’t seem to lately. Bush says that he “cut and run because it wasn’t popular with conservatives.”
Cruz defends his past statements by noting support from immigration hardliners like Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.), while slamming Rubio for sponsoring an immigration reform bill.
Rubio strikes back at Cruz’s criticism, saying that now he wants to “trump Trump” where in the past he supported compromise.
Christie accuses Rubio and Cruz of hiding behind “parliamentary tricks” when in fact they changed their positions, quipping that they need a “Washington English dictionary converter” to parse through their positions. “Stop the Washington bull and let’s get things done,” he says.
10:17 p.m. Marco Rubio’s electability. Many of Hillary Clinton’s supporters believe that Rubio would be the toughest general rival of all the GOP candidates, but polls show his campaign still running well behind Trump and, in Iowa, Cruz. Rubio is asked why his campaign hasn’t yet caught fire, even though he has been referred to as the “savior” of the party. Rubio rejects the term “savior,” saying that Jesus Christ is his only savior, before going into an extended series of attacks on Clinton.
Christie, meanwhile, tries to out do him, repeating some of the blustery lines from the last debate while vowing to prosecute her over her use of a private email server. “There is no one on this stage better prepared to prosecute the case against Hillary Clinton,” Christie says.
10:27 p.m.: Same-sex marriage. Christie is asked about a past comment he made about Kim Davis, the Kentucky clerk who defied court orders to issue same-sex marriage licenses on religious grounds. He denies that he said that Davis should be doing her job and issue the licenses. “What I said that the law needed to be followed and someone in that office needed to do their job,” he says.
Just before, Kasich got a question on his decision to expand Medicaid in his state and how that tied into his faith. Instead, he gave an extended answer on what he has done as governor of Ohio to address mental health, drug addiction and recidivism.
10:32 p.m. The Donald Dominates. Even though he is not at the debate, Trump is still dominating conversation on Twitter. Their stats on share of conversation: @realDonaldTrump 37%, @TedCruz 18%, @MarcoRubio 12%.
10:38 p.m. Ben Carson on Foreign Policy. Carson’s weakest answers in the debates have been about foreign policy, and his answer to a question about Vladimir Putin was just slightly more coherent than they have been in the past. Carson said that the U.S. should be prepared to challenge the Russian leader in Estonia and Latvia, and send more brigades to Eastern Europe. “Putin is a one-horse country: oil and energy. We ought to fight them on that level,” he says.
10:43 p.m. Bill Clinton’s behavior. Paul is asked about his past comments about Bill Clinton’s sexual indiscretions, and whether that should be held against Hillary Clinton.
Paul insists he has commented on this only when asked, but insists, “She can’t be a champion of women’s rights when she has got this always lurking out there,” he says.
10:46 p.m.: Ethanol. Perhaps no other issue is more quintessentially Iowan than the federal ethanol mandate, a boon to the farming state as it requires blending corn-fed fuel into gasoline. Cruz is against the ethanol mandate, much to the dismay of the state’s Republican governor, Terry Branstad. “We should bne pursuing all of the above… but I don’t believe Washington should be picking winners and losers.” Other candidates do not challenge him on his stance, which counters the wisdom of what is a prerequisite for drawing caucus votes in the state.
10:55 p.m.: The End. The candidates give their closing statements, in one of their final opportunities to make their pitch to caucus voters in the first votes of the 2016 campaign.
What stood out: This debate moved along more briskly than previous ones, with crisper and more specific questions asked of the candidates even if they dodged the query or weren’t pressed with follow-ups. The event was more issue-oriented, despite Cruz’s protestations that the moderators were trying to get his rivals to attack him. The tone may have less to do with the absence of Trump and more to do with the fact that there are now seven candidates on the stage, as opposed to as many as 11 in previous gatherings.
Trump was still a looming presence, but only at the beginning, as Kelly, Baier and Chris Wallace got the “elephant in the room” out of the way. That probably played to Cruz’s advantage in terms of presence. Even though he was the prime target of attacks from rivals, they pulled punches at other points.
Rubio got the better of the one liners, as when he responded to Cruz’s complaints about the debate questions by saying, “Don’t worry, I will not leave the stage no matter what you ask me.”
Bush also did well, and seemed more at ease than in previous debates, including one in which Trump called him “low energy.”
The best moment of the debate was when Fox News ran video clips of Cruz and Rubio seemingly giving support to immigration reform, in conflict with their hardline stances on the campaign trail. It’s such an obvious way of presenting a question, putting the candidates on the spot with their former selves, that it is a wonder why it hasn’t been deployed in more of the debates this cycle.