DES MOINES, Iowa — Donald Trump's decision to skip the last primary debate before the Iowa caucuses seemed like one of his riskiest moves yet. But Trump came out as a winner (or at least not a loser) anyway, simply because no one else did.
Trump's absence posed an opportunity for the other candidates: Here, finally, they could launch attacks without fear of Trump's immediate reprisal — or at least pretend he didn't exist at all.
The reality was more muddled. Though Trump, who backed out of the debate because of complaints about the Fox News moderators and held a veterans-themed event instead, loomed large over the proceedings in absentia, most of the candidates settled for just one or two shots at him.
The very first question, to Ted Cruz, was about Trump: Cruz responded by jokingly playing Trump's role, saying, "Let me say I'm a maniac and everyone on this stage is stupid, fat, and ugly. And Ben, you're a terrible surgeon."
"Chris, let's begin by being clear what this campaign is about. It's not about Donald Trump. He's an entertaining guy. He's the greatest show on earth," Marco Rubio chimed in later.
"I kind of miss Donald Trump," said Jeb Bush, the subject of much of Trump's mockery. "He was a little teddy bear to me."
After that, though, Trump, didn't really come up that much — or at least there wasn't much Trump-bashing. Bush seemed relieved, and Rand Paul got more opportunities to talk. The recipient of the most incoming was probably Cruz, who, along with Rubio, was faced with a tough video montage of his past statements on immigration. The mutual finger-pointing made it difficult for any candidate to truly stand out in Trump's stead. And Trump got to avoid the montages that were so brutal for Rubio and Cruz.
Meanwhile, the absent Trump was the most mentioned candidate on Twitter, according to statistics sent by Twitter's communications office, and gained the most followers. Trump also dominated Google searches.
After the debate, rival campaigns said they benefited from Trump's not being there.
"It did, absolutely," said Rubio spokesman Alex Conant when asked if Trump's absence had benefited Rubio. "Because we got more time to speak. In previous debates, Marco's been towards the bottom in terms of how much time he got to speak, tonight he was at the top in terms of how much time he had."
"It was the best debate we've had, it was the most substantive, we weren't distracted with people being called fat, ugly or stupid," said Rand Paul.
"Everybody got more time, so that was probably pretty helpful for everybody," said Cruz campaign manager Jeff Roe, who said that nonetheless Trump was "the elephant in the room."
"It was more unpredictable without him in," Roe said. "Oddly enough, it's more predictable when he's there, even though he is purposely not predictable."
But not everyone agreed that it was a boon; Iowa Congressman Steve King, who has endorsed Cruz and was acting as a surrogate for him after the debate, said he thought it stole an opportunity for Cruz to draw contrast with Trump.
"I don't think it did," said King when asked if Trump's absence benefited Cruz. "Because we were looking for that head-to-head."
"That's why Trump wasn't here," King said. "He wanted to avoid the direct conflict between Ted Cruz. It wasn't about Megyn Kelly — that was his ruse. Kelly was the ruse for Cruz."