What is a Republican debate without Donald Trump?
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And better yet: What happens when many of Fox News' questions were geared toward targeting Trump's stance on Muslim immigration?
America learned the answer to that question Thursday evening: There were many moments when everyone talked about the elephant not in the room.
And Fox News asked a spate of questions about alleged discrimination against Muslims and illegal immigrants.
With the nation only four days from the first votes of the 2016 election season, the following Republican candidates appeared in Des Moines, Iowa, at a high-stakes debate that doesn't include the front-runner for GOP nomination: Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, Dr. Ben Carson, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, Ohio Gov. John Kasich and Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul.
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Fox's Bret Baier, Megyn Kelly and Chris Wallace – all of whom hosted the fireworks-filled Aug. 6 event watched by 24 million viewers – moderated. Thursday's event was broadcast live on Fox News.
'I may have to leave this stage'
The first question from Fox News' Megyn Kelly: "Donald Trump has chosen not to attend: What message does that send to the voters of Iowa?"
Cruz first thanked Iowans and then replied, "Let me say, I'm a maniac, and everyone on this stage is stupid, fat, and ugly. And Ben, you're a bad surgeon."
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Cruz said, "Now that we've gotten the Donald Trump portion out of the way, I want to thank everyone here for showing the men and women of Iowa the respect to show up and make the case to the people of this state and the people of the country why each of us believes we would make the best commander in chief."
Cruz later added, "If Donald engages in insults or anybody else, I don't intend to reciprocate."
Rubio said the 2016 presidential campaign is "not about Donald Trump."
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"He's an entertaining guy, he's the greatest show on earth," Rubio said, arguing that Republicans should be more focused on stopping Hillary Clinton from winning the White House.
Bush said, "I kinda miss Donald Trump. He was always a little teddy bear to me. Everybody else was in the witness protection program when I went after him."
Further into the debate, Cruz accused the moderators of trying to pit the candidates against one another – asking questions that provoke each contender into attacking rivals.
"If you guys ask one more mean question, I may have to leave this stage," he said.
In a swipe at both Trump and Cruz, Rubio chimed in: "Don't worry, I'm not going to leave the stage no matter what you ask me."
Cruz argued that the most important determination Americans will make is who is best qualified to be commander in chief. He said Fox should focus on those issues rather than attempting to get everyone to attack one another.
Bill Clinton's 'sins' and Hillary's record on women
In one of the stand-out moments of the evening, Paul condemned the Clintons for their treatment of women.
Kelly asked Paul: "You have suggested that former President Bill Clinton's history with women is fair game in this campaign. How do you answer those who say you don't hold the sins of the husband against the wife?
"I've never really brought this up unless asked the question, but I have responded to the question," Paul said.
"I don't blame Hillary Clinton at all for this. I don't think she's responsible for his behavior. But I do think that her position as promoting women's rights and fairness to women in the workplace, that, if what Bill Clinton did, any CEO in our country did, with an intern, with a 22-year-old, 21-year-old intern in their office, they would be fired. They would never be hired again."
Paul paused for an eruption of cheers to die down.
"Fired, never hired again, and probably shunned in their community," he said. "And the thing is, she can't be a champion of women's rights at the same time she's got this, that is always lurking out there, this type of behavior. So it is difficult.
"I combine this also with the millions upon millions of dollars they've taken from regimes in the Middle East who treat women like cattle."
'Radical Muslims have the right to be radical Muslims'
Kelly asked a string of questions about Muslims and their rights Thursday evening.
She began, "Sen. Rubio, you've advocated closing down mosques, diners, any place where radicalization is occurring. You told me that. But the Supreme Court had made clear that hateful speech is generally protected by the First Amendment. In other words, radical Muslims have the right to be radical Muslims unless they turn to terror. Doesn't your position run afoul of the First Amendment?"
Rubio replied, "Megyn, that's the problem. Radical Muslims, and radical Islam, is not just hate talk. It's hate action. They blow people up. Look what they did in San Bernardino. Look at the attack they inspired in Philadelphia that the White House still refuses to link to terror. Where a guy basically shot a police officer three times. He told the police, 'I did it because I was inspired by ISIS.' And to this day, the White House still refuses to acknowledge that it had anything to do with terror.
"Look, the threat we face from ISIS is unprecedented. There has never been a jihadist group like this. They have affiliates in over a dozen countries now. They are the best funded radical jihadist group in the history of the world. And they have shown a sophisticated understanding of the laws of other countries on how to insert fighters into places and they are actively plotting to attack us here at home and around the world. We must keep America safe from this threat, and, yes, when I am president of the United States, if there is someplace in this country where radical jihadists are planning to attack the United States, we will go after them wherever they are, and if we capture them alive they are going to Guantanamo."
GOP 'stoked the flames of bias' against Muslims
Curiously, in her line of questioning, Kelly accused Republicans of stoking the "flames of bias" against Muslims.
She asked Carson: "This week a female Muslim who served in the U.S. Air Force asked Hillary Clinton whether the United States is still the best place to raise her three Muslim children, given what she perceives as a rise in Islamophobia in this county. Do you think that the GOP messaging on Muslims has stoked the flames of bias on this, as the Democrats suggest, and how would you answer this veteran?
Carson responded, "I don't know about the GOP messaging but I can tell you about my messaging. We need to stop allowing political correctness to dictate our policies, because it's going to kill us if we don't.
"In the Holy Land Foundation trial in 2006 in Texas, they had an explanatory memorandum, that talked about the fact that Americans would be easy to overcome, and to commit civilization jihad, because they were going to be trying to protect the rights of the very people who were trying to subvert them.
"I believe in a Teddy Roosevelt philosophy. Teddy Roosevelt said we are a nation of immigrants, as such, everybody is welcome, any race, any country, any religion...if they want to be Americans.
"If they want to accept our values and our laws. If not, they should stay where they are."
The audience roared with applause.
America's 'culture of hatred'
Among the YouTube "stars" selected to ask questions was Muslim activist Nabela Noor, who supports Democratic Party candidate Bernie Sanders.
Noor, who asked a question on video, referred to an American "culture of hatred."
She said, "I'm a Muslim-American born and raised in the U.S. who creates beauty and lifestyle videos on YouTube."
Noor claimed, "In 2015, the number of hate crimes against Muslims in the U.S. has tripled, and on social media, where I spend a lot of time, I've seen many attacks directed toward fellow Muslims. This culture of hatred is only driving ISIS to radicalize, recruit and incite violence."
According to actual FBI statistics for 2014, "16.1 percent [16.1%] were victims of anti-Islamic (Muslim) bias,” amounting to approximately 183.54 instances where Muslim individuals, businesses or institutions were targeted. In 2014, Jews were targets 40.7 percent more than Muslims.
Nonetheless, Noor turned her accusation into a question, asking, "As president, what would you do address this toxic climate and promote increased tolerance in the United States?"
The scuttlebutt was Fox had planned to direct this question to Trump, who has called for the temporary halt to the immigration of Muslims due to the terrorist threat, and has been criticized as misguided by such establishment types as Jeb Bush.
Fox directed the question to Bush.
He said, "First of all, I think it's important that when we're running for the highest office in the land, that we recognize we're living in dangerous times and we have to be serious about it. That our words have consequences.
Bush, who has been a frequent target of Trump's attacks, then turned the question into an attack on Trump's proposed temporary ban on Muslims entering the United States.
"Donald Trump, for example — I mentioned his name again if anybody was missing him — Mr. Trump believed in reaction to people’s fears that we should ban all Muslims. Well, that creates an environment that’s toxic in our own country.
"Bella's a rising entrepreneur. She wants to pursue the American dream. She's an American citizen. She should not feel uncomfortable about her citizenship. She's not the threat. the threat is Islamic terrorism. We need to focus our energies there not these broad, blanket kind of statements that make it harder for us to deal with ISIS.
"We need to deal with ISIS in the caliphate. We need a strategy to destroy ISIS there. You can't do that without the cooperation of the Muslim world. Because they're as threatened as we are. So I think it's important to be careful about the language we use, which is why I've been critical of Donald Trump.
"Disparaging women. Disparaging Hispanics. That's not a sign of strength. Making fun of disabled people? We're never going to win elections unless we have a broader more unifying message."
President Hillary Clinton will 'pardon herself'
Rubio may have had one of the best lines of the night, quipping about Hillary Clinton, "One of her first acts as president may very well be to pardon herself."
It came in response to a question about electability, with Baier noting some luminaries, such as Rush Limbaugh, have said Rubio likely will be elected president someday, but that he is currently running third in his own home state of Florida, trailing Trump by 24 points.
"If the people who know you best have you there, why should the rest of the country elect you?"
Rubio replied, "As far as the polls are concerned, Iowa, on Monday night you're going to go to a caucus site and you'll be the first Americans that vote in this election. You'll be the first American who get to answer the fundamental question of what comes next for this country after seven disastrous years of Barack Obama.
"And let me tell you what the answer better not be. It better not be Bernie Sanders. Bernie Sanders is a socialist. I think Bernie Sanders is a good candidate for president ... of Sweden. We don't want to be Sweden. We want to be the United States of America.
"And Hillary Clinton is disqualified from being the commander in chief of the United States. In fact, one of her first acts as president may very well be to pardon herself, because Hillary Clinton stored classified information on her private server and Hillary Clinton lied to the families of those four brave Americans who lost their lives in Benghazi.
"And anyone who lies to the families of Americans who died in the service of this country can never be commander in chief of the United States."
Meanwhile, back at the Trump show ...
The GOP debate presented a unique opportunity for GOP candidates who haven't captured much of the spotlight due to the long shadow cast by Trump.
As WND reported, Trump appeared instead at a veterans event alongside GOP rivals Mike Huckabee and Rick Santorum. It began at 9 p.m. EST at the Sheslow Auditorium at Drake University.
Trump opened with a thank you to the crowd and an explanation that he had to do something in Iowa, although he couldn’t take part in the Fox debate because of the network’s treatment of him.
The real-estate mogul announced Fox had changed its tone and been "very nice to me" in recent hours and that his event had "more cameras" and was drawing more interest than the cable outlet's debate.
"You have to stick up for your rights," he said. "When you’re treated badly, you have to stick up for your rights.”
The latest Monmouth University Poll of likely Iowa Republican caucusgoers has Trump ahead of the pack by seven points, with 30 percent support. Sen. Ted Cruz has 23 percent; Sen. Marco Rubio, 16 percent; Dr. Ben Carson, 10 percent. The remaining candidates received less than 5 percent.
In national polling, Trump was surging ahead of the rest of the GOP pack at 36.2 percent in the RealClearPolitics average Thursday. Cruz came in at 19.4 percent. Rubio garnered 10.8 percent. Carson had 8.2 percent. Bush remained at 4.8 percent. Christie came in at 3.8 percent. Kasich, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, former Hewlett Packard CEO Carly Fiorina, Paul and Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum all received less than 2.6 percent.
'Happy hour' debate: Hillary for 'the big house'
Fox also hosted an undercard or "happy hour" debate at 7 p.m. EST featuring the following GOP candidates who failed to qualify for the main event due to low performance in the polls: Fiorina, Huckabee, Santorum and former Virginia Gov. Jim Gilmore.
The Trump-Fox drama even trickled into the undercard debate.
At that event, Santorum was asked: Is Monday night your last stand?
Santorum reacted to the question by complaining that there was no media coverage of the undercard debate.
"This is what the media has been doing over the last year to segregate and take Iowans out of the process," he said.
Santorum said Iowans have an opportunity not to vote for "an entertainer" like Trump. He said news pundits were so concerned about whether Trump would show for the prime-time debate, they failed to address real issues that matter.
Pressed for his opinion of Trump, Santorum blasted, "I'm not going to throw mud at anybody on this stage tonight. I'm not going to throw mud at anybody later. I'm not going to attack Trump."
Fiorina echoed some of Santorum's concerns, saying she believes there's a "yawning chasm" in the election between what the media discuss and what Americans think is important.
"This is why we have to take our government back. The pundits think they own this country. The media think they own this country," Fiorina said. "Citizens, the game is rigged. Take our country back."
Fiorina also took on Hillary Clinton's Benghazi lies, accusing her of sending a message to jihadists that "it's open season" on Americans.
Fiorina also ripped into Clinton, saying the former secretary of state will do anything to gain power and hold onto it.
"If my husband did what Bill Clinton did, I would have left him long ago," Fiorina said. "So here's the deal: Hillary Clinton has been climbing the ladder to try and get in power. And here now she is trying for the White House. She's probably more qualified for the big house, honestly. She's escaped prosecution more times than El Chapo. Perhaps Sean Penn should interview her. The woman should be prosecuted."
She concluded by saying the fact that Clinton hasn't been indicted "tells us a lot about our justice system."