It turns out that a world without Donald Trump is filled with Donald Trump anyway.
To many in the Republican Party, Thursday night’s debate was a dream scenario -- seven candidates, and not a reality TV show billionaire in sight. No huge walls were hypothetically built, and no religious groups were banned from entry into the United States.
Yet Trump was still everywhere. He was there for viewers on another channel, giant American flag behind him, two other Republican candidates beside him, chants of “USA, USA, USA” enveloping them.
He was also there with the candidates as the “elephant not in the room,” as moderator Megyn Kelly put it, or as Jeb Bush’s non-showing “little teddy bear.”
His absence was felt, moreover, when the leading candidates tangled over the hot-button issue of immigration. Trump wasn’t there to take heat for them, or to face any real scrutiny of his own.
Trump’s dominance in the race was revealed by the extent to which the debate lacked an obvious center of gravity. The party and its candidates have grown used to the front-runner; surely the same is true for viewers treated to a debate season like no other.
Trump’s absence opened up room for Marco Rubio to have a strong night talking foreign policy, particularly as he contrasted his record with the other senators on stage. Even he, though, needed a joust against Trump to get going.
“Let's begin by being clear what this campaign is about. It's not about Donald Trump,” Rubio said. “This campaign is about the greatest country in the world and a president who has systematically destroyed many of the things that made America special.”
Ted Cruz took on attacks from several of his rivals, even complaining to the moderators that too many questions were aimed at attacking him. He sought a lifeline in making light of Trump, in a joke that fell flat in the room.
“I will say this: Gosh, if you guys ask one more mean question, I may have to leave the stage,” Cruz said.
Countered Rubio: “I’m not leaving the stage, no matter what you ask me.”
When the leading candidates were pressed on some of their positions, one could imagine them wishing Trump was back on the stage. Rubio was served up a tough montage of his own past statements of immigration, setting up a debate with Bush where both wound up talking about positions that leave them out of step with much of the GOP.
“He cut and run because it wasn't popular amongst conservatives,” Bush said to Rubio.
“You changed your position from a path to citizenship to a path to legalization,” Rubio said to Bush.
Cruz, who is wrestling for the top spot with Trump in Iowa, was shown video clips of himself touting a proposal that would have locked in legalized status for undocumented immigrant. It opened himself up to attacks from his rivals.
“Everybody he knows is not as perfect as him because we're all for amnesty,” said Rand Paul.
“Now you want to trump Trump on immigration,” Rubio said to Cruz. “We're not going to beat Hillary Clinton with someone who's willing to say or do anything to win an election.”
Trump didn’t have to watch or respond to any montage of himself like Rubio or Cruz faced.
He wasn’t there to defend himself, but he didn’t have to. Some jokes aside, his positions and temperament weren’t under the same kind of scrutiny they have been at previous encounters.
That in itself is a win for Trump, particularly this close to voting Iowa. He’s not likely to be forgotten by caucus-goers.
“I’m a maniac, and everyone on the stage is stupid fat and ugly. And Ben you’re a terrible surgeon,” Cruz said at the top of the debate. “Now that we’ve got the Donald Trump portion out of the way ...”
The Republican Party has not gotten its Donald Trump out of its way, though, even if he wasn’t on the stage Thursday night.