When Republican front-runner Donald Trump got in a tiff with Fox News and skipped the final GOP debate Thursday night, Ted Cruz finally got a chance to step out of Trump's shadow and look presidential.
And during the first five minutes of the debate Cruz did exactly that, looking calm and stately, and sticking to the central issues and positions of his campaign. And he smartly mocked the "elephant in the room" (Trump). "I'm a maniac and everyone on this stage is stupid, fat, and ugly, and Ben, you're a terrible surgeon," Cruz told his rivals, including Ben Carson, a retired neurosurgeon. "Now that we've gotten the Donald Trump portion out of the way," he quipped.
Then things went south.
Cruz could have spent his time on stage cutting apart Hillary Clinton's policy proposals, laying a few jabs at Obama, and, most importantly, laying out a vision for a more centrist, sane, and inclusive GOP. He needed to make Iowans feel solid about supporting him.
Instead, Cruz spent the rest of the night playing the complainer, the slippery rhetorician. He complained that the questions coming from the Fox moderators were designed to give his opponents opportunities to attack him. He bickered with moderator Chris Wallace for a protracted period about debate rules, preventing Wallace from moving on to the next question—to the obvious dissatisfaction of the audience.
Trump's absence changed the tone of the debate. While there was still a lot of saber rattling going on, there was also a good deal of talk about policy, issues. We saw some frontal attacks by one candidate on another, but they were about voting records; they weren't personal attacks.
There was a sense that Trump wasn't standing in the middle of the stage sucking all the air out of the room.
There was a clear downside to Trump's absence for Cruz, too. It left Cruz as lone front-runner on the stage, making him the only available target for Bush, Rubio, and Paul. Each took swings at Cruz's various positions through the years on immigration and defense spending. Some of it seemed to stick.
And Fox had a video clip cued up showing Cruz in 2013 stating that he favors granting legal status to illegal immigrants, but not citizenship. He says he favors neither today. Cruz then made a somewhat awkward attempt to make his past position agree with his present one.
So what could have been a golden opportunity for Cruz to present himself as the sane alternative to Donald Trump turned into just another cold night in Iowa.
So, who won the debate? Viewers certainly benefited, with many noting how refreshing it was to have substantive issues discussed. Megyn Kelly, the Fox News moderator whose presence prompted Trump's boycott, won kudos on Twitter for her calm style and smart questions. And maybe even... Trump? On Time's online poll (which they warn is very unscientific), Trump won 53% of the 23,000 votes cast by readers.