Republican debate takeaways: Even with Trump absent, immigration battles take center stage

Thursday’s GOP debate was the final forum before the Iowa caucuses on Monday. No candidate stood out far enough to shift the contest. But all tried to take advantage of the absence of front-runner Donald Trump, whose outsized personality has dominated the campaign. What we noticed:

A few jokes about Donald Trump, but he was mostly ignored

The candidates resisted the chance to pile on front-runner Donald Trump, the real estate mogul who skipped the debate over a tiff with Fox News. Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, who is fighting with Trump for supremacy in Iowa, set the tone early with his best attempt at Borscht Belt humor.

"Let me say, I'm a maniac and everyone on this stage is stupid, fat and ugly. And Ben, you're a terrible surgeon," he said to Ben Carson. “Now that we’ve got the Donald Trump portion of the debate out of the way."

Thank you, ladies and gentlemen. Please, try the veal.

Candidates largely stuck to that theme, with Cruz later jokingly threatening to leave the stage “if you guys ask one more mean question.”

Marco Rubio: From uplifting future to scary apocalypse

Throughout the campaign, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio has vacillated between optimistic face of the next generation to dark, hawkish, Islamic State-killing warrior. On Thursday, he was in full-on warrior mode.

“ISIS is the most dangerous jihadist group in the history of mankind,” he said, using an alternate name for the group. “ISIS is a group that burns people alive in cages, that sells off little girls as brides. ISIS is a group that wants to trigger an apocalyptic showdown in the city of Dabiq.”

Even when he talked about faith, charity and American exceptionalism, he looked angry and sounded threatening.

“If you do not understand that our Judeo-Christian values are one of the reasons why America is such a special country,” he said, “you don't understand our history.”

Exchanges on immigration were the night’s most heated

Trump’s favorite issue once again took center stage, even if he didn't. But without him, the tenor changed. Cruz and Rubio were both confronted with video evidence (a nice touch from Fox) that they had significantly altered their positions.

Rubio sweated when asked about his role as co-sponsor of a 2013 immigration overhaul in Congress.

“I do not support blanket amnesty,” he pleaded, just after the video showed him equating a path to citizenship with blanket amnesty.

Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush piled on.

“He cut and run because it wasn’t popular among conservatives,” Bush said of Rubio, who withdrew his support for the 2013 bill after it became clear it would ultimately fail in the House.

Rubio and Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul then pounced on Cruz for appearing to support the 2013 bill before positioning himself as its chief opponent.

“He’s the king of saying, ‘Oh, you're for amnesty,’” Paul said. “But it's a falseness, and that's an authenticity problem.”

“This is the lie that Ted’s campaign is built on,” Rubio said. “He’s the most conservative guy and everyone else is a RINO” — Republican in name only.

“Throughout this campaign, you’ve been willing to say or do anything to get votes,” Rubio accused Cruz.

Jeb Bush and Rand Paul come alive

Bush and Paul have been two of the biggest underachievers in this race. It is probably too late, four days before the Iowa caucuses, to rebuild their lost fortunes. But both men looked more at ease without Trump, who frequently taunted them, and they returned to their core messages.

Bush talked about seeking the cooperation of the Muslim world and remembering that America is a “welcoming nation,” criticizing Trump’s rhetoric in both cases.

Paul, whose low poll numbers kept him out of the last main-stage debate, spoke passionately against the surveillance state and mixed it up a few times with Cruz, his Senate rival.

Wild-card issues broaden the discussion

Puerto Rico’s financial problems and the water crisis in Flint, Mich., both got rare cameos in the debate, forcing the candidates to depart from some of their normal talking points.

Bush argued against a Puerto Rico bailout, but said the island’s residents should be free to vote in favor of statehood, which he would personally support. Gov. John Kasich of Ohio didn’t have much of an answer for Flint’s water disaster, beyond noting that “every single engine of government has to move when you see a crisis like that.”

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