DON’T YOU FORGET ABOUT ME

01.29.16 8:23 AM ET

Without Trump, It’s Revenge of the Nerds

The rest of the GOP field let its guard down in Trump’s absence.

The bully didn’t show up to school on Thursday, so all the other students could finally be themselves.

With their guards down, the Republican candidates on stage were nerdy, debate champs in their element—not fearing that at any moment they could be the victim of some humiliation that would haunt them for the rest of their lives.

Though he was rarely mentioned, Donald Trump’s absence was felt all night—but mostly because of the lack of put-downs, which were replaced by a wide-ranging policy discussion from foreign policy to abortion to who loves Jesus more.

And while his decision to attend a separate event provided a golden opportunity for the other candidates to distinguish themselves, it’s hard to say that any one of them came out as a clear winner.  

The only two candidates on the stage polling in the double digits were Ted Cruz, who stands a reasonable chance of winning Monday’s caucuses, and Marco Rubio, who may finally be getting the bounce in momentum long predicted by pundits. In the language of political professionals, both sought to provide “contrasts” with the other, particularly on an issue that’s dogged both of them throughout the primary: immigration.

The big weak spot for Rubio is his past support for the bipartisan “Gang of Eight” immigration reform effort, which failed due to conservative opposition in Congress. Depending on who you talk to, Cruz either tried to push that legislation or cannily helped kill it—and the Harvard Law grad was more than happy to bring in expert witnesses to insist that the latter was true.

“Ask people like Jeff Sessions and Steve King and Rush Limbaugh and Mark Levin, all of whom say... if it wasn’t for Ted Cruz, the Gang of Eight Rubio/Schumer bill would have passed. But because Ted stood up and helped lead the effort, millions rose up to kill it,” Cruz said, listing some of his biggest fans and referring to himself in the third person.

Former Florida governor Jeb Bush—the most bullied kid in school—also weighed in on Rubio’s immigration record, with almost a new vitality given the absence of his principal tormentor.

“I’m kind of confused because [Rubio] was the sponsor of the Gang of Eight bill that did require a bunch of thresholds but ultimately allowed for citizenship over an extended period of time,” Bush said, before making reference to a book in which he also embraced immigration reform—a position that he has defended on the stump.

But while the rest of the candidates did their best impressions of Midwestern Nice, Cruz channelled Trump, complaining that the moderators were being tough on him and generally trying to make the debate all about him—even though it really wasn’t.

Following a question from moderator Chris Wallace to Bush about what he learned from his brother’s intervention in Iraq and Afghanistan, Cruz insisted he respond to the Wallace’s mention of his name in an earlier question.

“Chris, I would note that that the last four questions have been, ‘Rand, please attack Ted. Marco, please attack Ted. Chris, please attack Ted. Jeb, please attack Ted,’” he said.

When Wallace, who had indeed referenced Cruz’s policy positions in his questions to other candidates, reminded Cruz it was—in fact—a debate, the Texas senator responded like the awkward geek he is.

“A debate actually is a policy issue, but I will say this. Gosh, if you guys ask one more mean question I may have to leave the stage,” Cruz joked, badly.

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That response set up Rubio for a perfect rejoinder, as the Florida senator insisted that he would not leave the debate under any circumstances.

Rand Paul, newly invited back to the main stage and, if the cheering was any indication, a popular figure in the arena, also took the chance to shiv Cruz. While Cruz and Rubio fought over whose support for immigration restrictions was more insincere, Paul, who is more dovish on the issue, lambasted the Texas senator as the worst kind of flip-flopper.

“I was there and I saw the debate,” Paul said. “I saw Ted Cruz say, ‘We’ll take citizenship off the table, and then the bill will pass, and I’m for the bill.’ The bill would involve legalization. He can’t have it both ways. But what is particularly insulting, though, is that he is the king of saying, ‘you’re for amnesty.’ Everybody’s for amnesty except for Ted Cruz.

"But it’s a falseness, and that’s an authenticity problem—that everybody he knows is not as perfect as him because we’re all for amnesty. I was for legalization. I think, frankly, if you have border security, you can have legalization. So was Ted, but now he says it wasn’t so. That’s not true.”

It’s been well documented that Cruz is deeply unpopular among his colleagues. And his colleagues on stage Thursday night proved the point. Cruz was auditioning to be the big man on campus, which is hard to pull off when you’re so roundly loathed by the people around you.

Donald Trump’s day off provided the other candidates a brief reprieve, a chance to be themselves and talk about their interests, this was but a holiday. And as much as they might wish that this is the campaign they could have had, one without Trump and his insults and his dominance in news cycle after news cycle, that’s not the race they got. Trump is still around, still leading, still the man one of them will have to best in the brawl to come.

Tomorrow, the bully jumps back into the fray, and they know it. When asked by a reporter after the debate if he missed Trump, Cruz didn’t mince his words.

“He’s always with us.”