The Man Who Wasn’t There

Screen Shot 2016-01-29 at 8.43.38 AMMAGGIE HABERMAN

Friday, January 29, 2016

Good Friday morning. The final Republican debate before the Iowa caucuses came with the usual so-called undercard forum, live analysis and fact checks. But what it didn’t have was its regular central figure.

A debate without Donald J. Trump does not mean that Mr. Trump is really absent.

At least that was the takeaway after the first two-hour Republican primary debate held without the real estate developer, who is leading public opinion polls in Iowa and who decided not to attend the final face-off after a running feud with the host, Fox News.

Mr. Trump was mentioned repeatedly in the opening moments, mostly in a mocking way. But without him, there was a significant difference in energy. It was a bit like a television series in which a major character disappears midseason, said to be off on a business trip, as the actor playing that character films a movie or deals with a health crisis. The show goes on, but it doesn’t feel the same.

Without Mr. Trump, most of the drama involved Senators Marco Rubio of Florida and Ted Cruz of Texas, each of whom was asked tough questions by the moderator Megyn Kelly — who demonstrated that her toughness is not, in fact, limited to Mr. Trump — about changes in their immigration stances. Fox News played footage of both men talking about the issue in previous years in ways that seemed to clash with their current statements. (One has to wonder whether Mr. Trump’s aides had been aware that old videos would be used during the debate when they collectively decided he wouldn’t attend.) At first, Mr. Cruz, a sharp debater, seemed to benefit greatly from Mr. Trump’s absence, but he seemed less sure-footed later. Mr. Cruz also had a terse exchange with another moderator, Chris Wallace.

Mr. Rubio, who at times seemed to shout, and Jeb Bush exchanged harsh barbs about immigration overhaul, which represented some of Mr. Bush’s best moments in any previous debate. Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey made his presence felt, but his answers felt deeply similar to previous ones.

It’s not clear if the debate will change many minds in Iowa, but Mr. Bush and Mr. Rubio, who had been drowned out by the Trump-Cruz show, might now get a second look before the caucuses on Monday night.

And while Mr. Trump may have halted his momentum by stepping off stage, he did himself no harm, and put Mr. Cruz in the line of fire.