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Who Won the Republican Debate?

January 29, 2016, 5:12 AM UTC

Here’s an election-themed Zen riddle: How do you win a debate without showing up?

Donald Trump, the Samurai master of campaigning via media stunts, solved it Thursday by transforming his decision to skip the Fox News debate into a bigger happening than the event itself.

The billionaire businessman owned the last two days of coverage by reigniting his feud with the conservative cable network and ultimately making good on his threat to bolt rather than face Fox host Megyn Kelly as a moderator. Depending on your vantage, Trump either looked petulant or tough for deciding instead to counter-program the debate with his own rally — billed as a fundraising event for veterans — nearby in Des Moines.

But either way, he confirmed his rep as a figure willing to stand apart from the establishment political-media complex, and his front-running status in Iowa and beyond won’t suffer for it. And though he was gone, he was hardly forgotten, with Google search traffic for Trump through the first hour-plus of the debate eclipsing that of all the candidates on stage combined.

Those who did show up to the field’s seventh showdown — the final one before the Iowa caucuses on Monday — squabbled over immigration, terrorism and government surveillance. And in the most memorable clash of the night, Trump’s two nearest rivals in Iowa, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio and Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, eviscerated each other over their respective records on immigration.

Each accused the other of lying about his past positions, all to present as tough on immigration before primary voters agitating for a harder line. In that regard, both appeared to be right. Fox moderators drove that point home in dramatic fashion by playing extended video clips of the candidates arguing, in archived footage, for a solution that includes legalizing undocumented workers, then asking them to defend their respective evolutions.

The upshot: Both came across as disingenuous Washington insiders, a toxic caricature in a presidential primary. And New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie pounced on the opportunity to dismiss them as such after their back-and-forth. “I feel like I need a Washington to English dictionary converter, right?” Christie said, to laughter. “I mean, I heard what they both said, I saw it on the video.”

But as long as we’re getting creative in naming debate winners, we may as well extend that to losers, as well, and identify the voters among those who came up short. The two-hour debate managed to cover a wide range of issues, from the Flint, Michigan water crisis to a hypothetical Russian attack on Estonia. Yet as our colleague Dan Primack noted, the Fox News moderators gave exceedingly short shrift to jobs and the economy, failing to ask a single question dedicated to how the candidates would encourage fuller employment or higher wages. That, despite the fact that Republican voters in Iowa rate the issue as their top concern, according to a Quinnipiac University poll released this week.

Trump’s shadow assumed its place on the debate stage from the start. Kelly kicked off the night by inviting Cruz to “address the elephant not in the room,” asking him what message Trump’s absence sent to Iowa voters. That was softer than soft-pitch, more like tee-ball, and Cruz took a swing with a canned laugh line: “Let me say, I’m a maniac and everyone on this stage is stupid, fat, and ugly. And Ben [Carson], you’re a terrible surgeon. Now that we’ve gotten the Donald Trump portion out of the way…”

But as the highest-polling contender in the room, Cruz arrived braced for attacks. He appeared defensive bordering on whiny when he protested to the moderators at one point that he was being treated too roughly — a complaint that drew boos from the audience. At other points, he struggled through the barrage. Beyond his inconstancy on immigration, he took heat for calling to end ethanol subsidies — a position so unpopular with Iowa corn-growers that it’s already earned him a first-ever un-endorsement from Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad, a locally beloved Republican boosting Trump instead. Cruz found surer footing on a question about whether his grating style would limit his effectiveness, owning his unpopularity in Washington as proof he’s shaking things up.

The surprise of the night came from the contest’s original heavy, long-since deposed, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, who turned in by far his strongest debate performance of the cycle. He parried a question about his brother’s foreign-policy misadventures, for example, into commanding enumeration of his plan for dismantling ISIS. If it got through to voters in New Hampshire, who head to the polls eight days after Iowa, Bush’s showing could give him a much-needed lift. There, the former frontrunner and is elbowing Rubio, Christie and Ohio Gov. John Kasich for position as the most viable, establishment-friendly alternative to Trump and Cruz. That sub-contest in the Granite State has remained something of a four-way tangle.