Donald Trump (apparently declined)
Happy Hour Debate 6PM/ET
REPLAY Fox News / Google Republican Primary Debate
The seventh Republican primary debate was held on January 28, 2016 at the Iowa Events Center in Des Moines, Iowa, just days before that state's important caucuses were held. Following the now-standard “happy hour” debate held earlier between lower-polling candidates, the prime time event was moderated by Brett Baier, Megyn Kelly, and Chris Wallace, with contributions by YouTube personalities Mark Watson, Dulce Candy, and Nabela Noor. Fox News hosted the debates.
Seven of the GOP's highest-polling candidates were on the stage tonight, but the biggest story going in wasn't about who was there, but about who wasn't. Republican frontrunner Donald Trump announced several days earlier that he would be boycotting the debate, and despite skepticism about his sincerity – it wasn't the first time he had raised the possibility of being a no-show – he made good on the promise. Trump cited as reasons for his absence the presence of Megyn Kelly as a moderator, whom Trump said had been unkind to him the last time she had helped oversee a Republican debate, and a press release from FOX News that made fun of him for his not-infrequent complaints about they and the Republican party treating him “unfairly”. He also took credit for causing debate ratings to skyrocket, and suggested that his choosing not to attend would depress popular interest in the event. Instead of appearing at tonight's contest, Trump hosted a fundraiser for wounded war veterans.
Though the candidates gave no opening statements in this debate, moderator Megyn Kelly started off by addressing, in her words, “the elephant not in the room” and pointing out Trump's absence – though she declined to call attention to the fact that she herself was a stated reason for that absence. Meanwhile, speculation was high that second-place GOP candidate Ted Cruz would take the opportunity to attack his rival with impunity. He did not do so directly, but did indulge at least twice in jocular jabs against the Donald. In the beginning, after Kelly's first question concerning the missing Trump, Cruz stated “I am a maniac, and everyone on this stage is stupid, fat and ugly. And [Doctor] Ben [Carson], you're a terrible surgeon. Now that we've got the Donald Trump portion of the debate out of the way...” to audience laughter. The audience was less amused when Cruz later called out Chris Wallace for asking questions designed to induce the other candidates to attack him – this accusation drew a chorus of “boo”'s from those gathered, before an undaunted Cruz went on to say in a not altogether serious voice, “If you guys ask one more mean question, I might have to leave the stage.” Again, Donald Trump has been no stranger to threatening his absence from Republican debates.
The candidates and moderators soon recovered from musing over Trump's boycott and moved on to substantive political issues, though it should be noted that there was a lack of a certain pointed severity in Trump's absence, with the Republican contenders seeming to employ fewer ad hominems and less impassioned exchanges. Commentators would later discuss whether this was at all a bad thing, but it was a definitely noticeable difference in tonight's contest versus previous Republican debates, which were often vicious - especially in comparison to their more subdued Democratic counterparts.
Nevertheless, there were some (albeit underheated) sparring matches. At one point, Marco Rubio and Jeb Bush squared off on immigration, with Rubio accusing Bush of writing a book in which he shamelessly changed his position on the issue. Bush did not deny this, but with support from his backers in the audience, he replied “So did you. So did you, Marco.” Later, Rubio took aim at Ted Cruz (the highest-polling candidate on stage, without Trump in attendance), and said that the Texas Senator had proven willing to say or do anything to get votes. The audience turned on the normally charming and diplomatic Rubio for this, booing him loudly. Meanwhile, Bush rather than Cruz took his chance for free attacks against Trump, criticizing the GOP frontrunner for his hotly controversial comments about women, Muslims, and disabled people.
A variety of issues were discussed over the course of the debate, including ISIS, foreign policy, and electability concerns regarding several of the candidates. The then-recent Flint water scandal – in which government officials in Flint, Michigan seemed to have allowed water they knew to be tainted with lead to be served to local residents for months – was brought up. Chris Christie received a question (highly charged among conservatives) about Kim Davis, the county clerk from Kentucky who refused to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples in the wake of the Supreme Court decision declaring that states must allow gay marriage. Christie said that all that was important was that the law be respected, meaning that anyone who came in seeking a marriage license should obtain one – not that Kim Davis, who was free to conscientiously object to such licenses, personally be the one to distribute them.
In closing statements, Christie reminded viewers that he had been personally touched by 9/11, which caused him to fear for a time that his wife may have been killed in the terrorist attacks, and pledged that no one would keep the country safer than him. Rubio emphasized the importance of the coming Iowa caucuses, the first votes to be cast in the Republican primary season. Cruz did the same, further inviting those listening to consider who was best suited to be president, to pray over their decision, and finally, to caucus for him when the near-at-hand time arrived.