DES MOINES, United States: Republican White House hopefuls jostled for the limelight Thursday (Friday in Manila) in the absence of master showman Donald Trump, who snubbed the last debate before the party nomination votes begin and upstaged his rivals with a dueling event.
Trump gambled big when he announced he was boycotting the debate in Des Moines because of a feud with Fox News, plunging the presidential race into uncharted waters just days before Iowa votes on February 1.
Straight out of the gate, the seven debaters turned to “the elephant not in the room” as he was wryly described by Megyn Kelly—the Fox anchor who Trump accuses of bias against him.
Top adversary Ted Cruz used Trump-like language to jokingly belittle himself and rivals — and take a pot shot at the absentee himself.
“I’m a maniac and everyone on this stage is stupid, fat and ugly. And Ben, you’re a terrible surgeon,” Cruz said, looking mischievously at retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson.
“We’ve gotten the Donald Trump portion out of the way,” he quipped.
Nationally, Trump keeps soaring. A recent CNN/ORC poll of Republican voters has Trump at 41 percent to 19 percent for Cruz, with more than two-thirds of Republicans saying they believe the billionaire developer will be the party’s presidential candidate.
But Trump has a genuine battle on his hands in Iowa with ultra-conservative Cruz who trails by about five percentage points in the RealClearPolitics average of recent Iowa polls.
Cruz, who has won endorsements from key evangelicals and anti-abortion figures who tout his religious values, insists the race against Trump is winnable and has blanketed Iowa with 12,000 volunteers and staff.
All eyes are now on the heartland state, where 12 Republican candidates and three Democratic hopefuls including Hillary Clinton are vying for both bragging rights and momentum as the primary race heads next to New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada.