GOP Candidates Bask in Donald Trump’s Absence in Final Debate Before Iowa Caucuses
AP Photo/Chris Carlson

The latest GOP Debate took place last night in Des Moines, four days before the Iowa caucus – the first of the state primary. Ben Carson, Rand Paul, John Kasich, Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, Chris Christie and Jeb Bush appeared on the main stage while front-runner Donald Trump refused to appear in protest of the participation of FOX News’ Megyn Kelly.  

If you were looking for a robust discussion on issues that matter to African-Americans, this was not your debate. Of the five key issues identified by Essence readers that matter most in the 2016 presidential election: affordable health care; (2) living wage jobs; (3) college affordability; (4) quality public education; and (5) criminal justice reform, only criminal justice reform was addressed. The Flint, Michigan water crisis barely registered, and the Black Lives Matter movement was not mentioned at all. Below are top five moments from the debate. 

1) Trump Looms Large.
Trump’s absence resulted in a more cordial, substantive and focused discussion on policy and issues. Kasich, Paul and Christie, each of whom in prior debates faded in the barrage of Trump insults and boorishness, fared better. But even in absentia, Trump won the debate, and here’s why: He spent the week prior to the event publicly sparring with FOX News about his participation, keeping him relevant in the news cycle. When the debate finally kicked-off, the first two questions were about Trump. In fact, he was mentioned 7 times in the first 10 minutes.  

You Tube stars Dulce Candy Ruiz, once an undocumented immigrant who went on to later serve in Iraq, and Nabela Noor, a Muslim-American woman, asked the candidates about the atmosphere of fear of immigrants and Muslims, a nod to Trump’s call to deport illegal immigrants and ban Muslims from entering America. Ted Cruz opened with a reference to Trump when joking that “everyone on this stage is stupid, fat and ugly . . . Now that we’ve gotten the Donald Trump portion out of the way…”  Marco Rubio stated sarcastically that Trump was “the greatest show on earth.”  Trump stayed fresh on everyone’s mind during the debate, while avoiding tough questions on the issues and policy.

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2) Ted Cruz Can’t Handle The Heat.
Trump’s absence meant that Cruz was set to shine and show Iowans that he is the better choice. But despite Trump’s absence, Cruz (who’s a seasoned debater) delivered his worst performance yet, appearing defensive and whiny. He complained, “I would note that the last four questions have been, Rand, please attack Ted. Jeb, please attack Ted…”  He then said, “Gosh, if you guys ask one more mean question, I may have to leave the stage.”  Cruz’ attempt to turn the focus on the moderators, as Christie did in the 2nd GOP debate, fell flat.

FOX News presented the candidates with video reflecting earlier positions on issues and challenged them on changing their stances. While most of the candidates emerged relatively unscathed, Cruz was forced to uncomfortably explain his earlier support for an amendment that would give undocumented immigrants legal status. In present day politics, both Marco Rubio and Cruz are vying for the position of “most cruel to undocumented immigrants.” While both danced around the question of amnesty, Cruz was the loser because his legislative history belies his protestation that he never supported it.

3) Ben Carson Fizzles and Pops.
Perhaps as a nod to Justice Clarence Thomas, Carson appeared startled awake each time he was asked a question. His responses were incoherent and unresponsive. Carson’s poll numbers, at one time running a close second to Trump, have fallen like a stone in the wake of questions regarding his biography and a nescient response on foreign policy. His campaign then saw the exodus of staffers, and a volunteer was tragically killed in a car crash. Further, statements like “Putin is a one-horse country” do not inspire the confidence Carson needs to resurge in the polls.

Top 5 Takeaways From the Final Republican Debate before the Iowa Caucus

4) Jeb Bush Got His Groove Back.
Jeb Bush is back! A more confident and relaxed Bush even mused that he missed Trump and that “he was a teddy bear.” He answered each question with substance, all while driving home his agenda: that he’ll make the best commander-in-chief because he has governed before and strives to bring people together. But will it matter? Bush still polls a distant fifth, and it remains to be seen whether his newfound pulse will register with voters.

5) Rand Paul Is for Criminal Justice Reform.
In responding to a question from African-American veteran Mark Watson about the use of body cameras and the need for such technology to better protect our communities, Rand Paul responded that Republicans should be part of criminal justice reform. He discussed his support of legislation for police body cameras; acknowledged the war on drugs disproportionately affected Black males; and tasked the U.S. with ensuring the fight against drugs would not jail “another generation of African-American males.”  Given that Paul is one of only two candidates (Christie is the other) on the stage with a criminal justice reform platform, his answer was spot on. It was disappointing that the question was not posed to other candidates.