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Highlights from the Seventh Republican Debate

Here's what you missed.

Joe Raedle/Getty Images

The Republican candidates—sans Donald Trump—met at the Iowa Events Center in Des Moines on Thursday evening for their final debate before the Iowa caucuses on Monday. Below are the most memorable moments of the night. You can also follow along at our blog, Minutes, for coverage and analysis as the debate unfolds. 

Ted Cruz Imitates Donald Trump

In her first question to Ted Cruz, Megyn Kelly asked about Trump, the real estate mogul conspicuously absent from the stage. Cruz replied by stepping into his shoes. “I’m a maniac, and everyone on this stage is stupid, fat, and ugly,” Cruz said. “And Ben, you’re a terrible person. Now that we’ve got the Donald Trump portion out of the way, I want to thank everyone on this stage for showing the respect to show up and make their cases to the people of Iowa.”

With his thanks to Iowans, the Texas senator was subtly hitting Donald Trump, who called Iowans “stupid” last year. The Cruz campaign has been attacking Trump on the airwaves for the last week with ads that show Trump asking, “How stupid are the people of Iowa?”

“If I’m elected president, keep an eye on the tarmac,” Cruz said Thursday night. “Because I’ll be back.”

Cruz Defends His Carpet-Bombing Strategy

As the debate pivoted to foreign policy, Ted Cruz faced a question from Fox News’s Chris Wallace about whether his promises to “bomb ISIS into oblivion” was simply tough talk or a legitimate strategy for toppling the Islamic State in the Arab World. “It is not tough talk,” Cruz replied. “It is a different fundamental military strategy than what we’ve seen from Barack Obama.”

But the New Republic’s Alex Shephard points out that the plan overlooks the scores of civilian casualties that would result from bombing major ISIS strongholds in Iraq and Syria. “Cruz’s ‘carpet bombing’ schtick has all of the hallmarks of cynical campaign rhetoric,” Shephard wrote. “Cruz can talk all he wants about glowing sand, but he’s refusing to engage with the consequences of carpet bombing for a reason: there would be tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of civilian casualties.”

Megyn Kelly Tries to Browbeat Chris Christie into Supporting Racial Profiling

Chris Christie’s most significant contribution to the 2016 race thus far has been the introduction of the Ferguson Effect, the myth that heightened scrutiny of police violence is responsible for a nationwide spike in crime. So it was perhaps commendable on Thursday that Christie refused to take Fox News moderator Megyn Kelly’s bait and advocate for the indiscriminate profiling of Muslims.

Recently, Kelly has suffered her share of misogynist attacks at the hands of Donald Trump and the horde of unicorn-fetishizing basement dwellers he calls a support base. The exchange with Christie was her way of reminding the viewing public that when she’s not being targeted for sexist backlash, she’s still the same mouthpiece who once saw the need to remind children of the “fact” of Santa Claus’s whiteness.

Prior to Thursday’s debate, the New Republic’s Jeet Heer wondered how Fox News would adjust to Donald Trump’s absence. It seems fair to say that, with or without Trump, the Fox shtick doesn’t change much. 

The Field Piles on Cruz Over Immigration

Cruz has been preparing for this campaign since the moment he stepped foot in the U.S. Senate. His record has been painstakingly calibrated to shore up his bonafides with the Christian far-right, and on no issue is that more apparent than immigration.

As the New Republic’s Brian Beutler has pointed out, Cruz went so far in fighting comprehensive immigration reform in the Senate that he outsmarted himself, pushing for a poison-pill bill that appears to signal support for a pathway to citizenship.

That’s how it’s being portrayed by his opponents on the campaign trail, anyways, especially Marco Rubio, whose immigration reform legislation Cruz eventually helped tank. On Thursday, Rubio reiterated his go-to line of attack, calling immigration the “lie that Ted’s campaign is built on,” and accusing Cruz of trying to “out-Trump Trump.”

Rand Paul joined in as well, saying that Cruz thinks he’s the only one who’s “perfect” on the issue.

The episode revealed the brilliance of Donald Trump’s decision to pull out of the debate. Without having to lift a finger himself, he got the rest of the field to go after his closest competitor in Iowa on the issue that’s been the motivating force for the whole Trump phenomenon. It would appear Marco Rubio had it wrong. In the end, nobody trumps the Donald.

The Mere Existence of Donald Trump’s Veterans Rally Was More Exciting than the Rally Itself

Trump’s debate counter-programming was surprisingly boring. Without the company of his fellow candidates Trump didn’t have a focus to his bluster, and because he was trying to maintain an air of respect for the sake of the veterans he didn’t pull out any of his crazier stump speeches. Instead, Trump acted as a master of ceremonies, introducing other speakers like hangers-on Rick Santorum and Mike Huckabee, war hero John Wayne Walding, and Diamond and Silk, the “Stump 4 Trump” sisters. There were a few flashes of classic Trump: He made fun of Jeb Bush, was interrupted by some protesters, and talked a lot about how happy he was that there were so many cameras at the event.

But nothing really astounding happened during the rally. The fact that Trump abandoned the debate remained the most exciting thing about the evening. It was also a very canny strategy: All those cameras were from local Iowa affiliates who didn’t have the rights to air the debate and chose to cover the rally instead. Boring or not—and regardless of whether actually raises any money for veterans—Trump’s rally was emblematic of his campaign as a whole. He did what he wanted, the establishment was horrified, and the people loved it.