The last Republican debate before the Iowa caucuses was most notable for who was absent: Donald Trump, who kept his vow not to appear in the Fox News debate that included anchor Megyn Kelly.
Even as he was absent from the stage in Des Moines and holding a rally of his own Thursday night, Trump had an impact. That was the consensus among a group of neutral observers I spoke to shortly after the debate concluded.
Another GOP consultant with no candidate in the race, Ford O’Connell, agreed.
“Trump was the debate winner precisely because Cruz was in the hot seat and Trump didn't have much to gain but potentially had much to lose by participating,” O’Connell told me. “Of those who appeared on the debate stage and who are currently in contention for the nomination, Rubio came out ahead. It's so much that Rubio won as no one else within striking distance of the nomination turned in such a standout performance that it matters at this juncture.”
O’Connell added that “without Trump on the stage, this debate was an opportunity for Cruz and Rubio to take control. Neither brought their A game and both got tripped up in the immigration quagmire.
“Jeb Bush and Rand Paul definitely turned in their best debate performances, but I'm not sure it will have a meaning long-term impact, given their meager standings in the polls. For Cruz, it was simply a missed opportunity that could cost him in Iowa.”