DES MOINES, IOWA — Early in the Republican debate, Ted Cruz, a leading presidential candidate, said he would walk off the stage if the Fox News moderators kept being so mean to him.
He was joking.
Probably. Maybe. Who knows anything any more, really?
The Iowa caucus is on Monday, and up is down and down is up. For example: Donald Trump won the debate without taking the stage at all.
As Cruz was whining and Jeb Bush was admitting to being “establishment” and Marco Rubio was struggling to defend his record on immigration, Trump, the man they were all trying to catch, stood unscathed on a university campus 10 minutes across town, looking like a principled patriot, basking in the admiration of Iowans.
“A genius decision,” said retiree Mary Corell, 69, who was one of hundreds who lined up in the Iowa cold to see him. “I think it’s a genius idea, and I think he’s a genius.”
Trump boycotted the debate in a fit of pique, angry at Fox host Megyn Kelly and the network honchos who refused to pull her off the moderating team. Instead, he scheduled a campaign rally that doubled as a benefit for wounded soldiers.
Even by the gonzo standards of a candidate who has not suffered for his insults of Mexicans and Muslims, it was risky: he risked insulting Iowans, who vote in their caucuses in four days, and he left himself open to attacks his rivals wouldn’t mount if he was around to defend himself.
It all came up Trump. As usual.
Second-place Cruz and the others passed on the chance to take free shots at the man who wasn’t there — “the elephant not in the room,” in Kelly’s words. They chose to savage each other, essentially competing to emerge from Iowa as the top non-Trump alternative. All of them suffered blows.
“Sorry, but the winner of this debate is Trump,” Craig Robinson, editor of the website The Iowa Republican, wrote on Twitter. “Everyone but the front-runner will leave bloody and bruised, well or irrelevant.”
In the 24 hours leading up to the debate, Trump’s rivals framed his boycott as the act of a petulant child, a man too immature to control the nuclear codes. To his supporters, it reinforced his brand: unconventional tough guy who won’t play by corrupt rules.
“I think he’s just tired of playing the games with the media. And I think it just shows where he stands,” said Curt Strathman, 66, a retired photographer. “It’s like, ‘No, you guys, I’m not going to stand for it any more.’ And I think that’s where we’re at. We’re tired of it. We’re tired and angry, and I think he is, too, and I think that’s why he did it.”
The rally, billed as a selfless charity event, was slightly more subdued than Trump’s usual angry one-man show: he even eschewed the part where he reads out his latest poll numbers. And he surrendered the microphone for a moving speech by a Green Beret named John Wayne, who lost his leg in Afghanistan.
He announced that the event had raised nearly $6 million (U.S.) in donations to veterans’ charities, $1 million from himself alone. But there was no doubt that this was more about point making than fundraising.
“You have to stick up for your rights,” Trump explained to the crowd. “When you’re treated badly, you have to stick up for your rights.”
The debate featured another pitched battle between Cruz, the Texas senator, and Rubio, the Florida senator who has not gained traction. This time, Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul joined Rubio in a tag-team attack on the sincerity of Cruz’s hard line on immigration.
“It’s a falseness, and that’s an authenticity problem,” Paul said.
“The truth is, Ted, throughout this campaign, you’ve been willing to say or do anything in order to get votes. Ted, you worked for George W. Bush’s campaign. You helped design George W. Bush’s immigration policy,” Rubio said.
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie made another appeal for blue-collar voters worried about security. John Kasich, the Ohio governor who is competing for second place in New Hampshire, billed himself as a unifying reformer who would work with Democrats, a rare message in a primary that has veered sharply to the right. And Bush, the former Florida governor who sometimes seems to quiver in Trump’s presence, appeared to benefit from his absence.
“I kind of miss him. I wish he was here,” Bush said.