An absent Trump won this debate: Why

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DES MOINES, Iowa — Donald Trump won. The Republican debate lost — and so did his rivals.

The Republican candidate skipped the final televised faceoff before Iowans vote in caucuses on Monday. That spared him all but glancing, humorous blows from those battling to catch up.

"Let me say, I'm a maniac and everyone on this stage is stupid, fat and ugly," Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas began. "And Ben, you're a terrible surgeon. Now that we've gotten the Donald Trump portion out of the way ..."

Later, Cruz jokingly threatened to leave the stage if he received any more challenging questions. He drew a few chuckles — but also drew attention to what moderator Megyn Kelly called "The elephant not on the stage."

Donald Trump speaks at a veteran's rally in Des Moines, Iowa January 28, 2016.
Rick Wilking | Reuters

The altered dynamic left more room than usual for other candidates. Cruz and Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida both received heightened scrutiny of their stances on the hot button issue of immigration, sometimes uncomfortably.

Moderators played past news clips that seemed to show Rubio as having reversed a campaign promise to oppose "amnesty" for illegal immigrants. It placed both men uncomfortably on the defensive. Similar scrutiny of Trump, whose reversals have appeared more stark, would have amplified attacks he is suffering in TV attack ads. With his absence, he avoided it.

Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, who once was expected to become the top Republican candidate, displayed more assertiveness and command in the absence of the bombastic real estate magnate whose success so far has dumbfounded the son and brother of former presidents. Yet he has fallen so far behind that his ability to take advantage is questionable.

Republican presidential candidates (R-L) Ben Carson and New Jersey Governor Chris Christie participate in the Fox News - Google GOP Debate January 28, 2016 at the Iowa Events Center in Des Moines, Iowa.
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The same is true of libertarian Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, the iconoclastic legacy candidate who had hoped to inherit the base of his father, Ron Paul, and build into a juggernaut with the potential to advance much further. He sparred effectively with Cruz, but his prospects have dramatically dimmed by this stage in the race.

Govs. John Kasich of Ohio and Chris Christie of New Jersey also enjoyed moments of command. But their messages underscored their hope merely to survive caucuses here and score a breakthrough in New Hampshire eight days after the Iowa caucuses.

Yet they never got a chance to lay a glove on the runaway leader in New Hampshire, and in the South Carolina primary after that, and in national polls. That's Trump, who managed another feat of media jujitsu after having dominated headlines before the debate with drama about whether he'd show up.

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks at a veteran's rally in Des Moines, Iowa January 28, 2016.
The winner of the GOP debate? Trump

Trump's hastily thrown together veterans benefit event in Des Moines drew intense coverage on other networks as Thursday's 9 p.m. EST debate time approached on Fox. He even drew friendly appearances by rival candidates Mike Huckabee and Rick Santorum, past Iowa winners who have floundered so far. If enough of their past evangelical backers stick with Trump, he can prevent Cruz from pulling off an upset.

Once the debate and Trump's competing event had concluded, it was time for late local television news here in Des Moines. The lead story on those newscasts: Trump.