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The Stream: Get Caught Up On The Iowa GOP Debate

Republican presidential candidates arrive Thursday for the final Republican presidential debate before the Iowa caucus in Des Moines, Iowa. Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

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Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images

Republican presidential candidates arrive Thursday for the final Republican presidential debate before the Iowa caucus in Des Moines, Iowa.

Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images

Get Caught Up:

  1. In the Trump-less debate, arrows were shot at Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, who was center stage. He complained Fox News was trying to goad his rivals to attack him, taking on a Trump-ian line. The sharpest elbows were thrown between Cruz and Rubio over immigration after Fox News showed past clips of each of them espousing different views and having to defend whether or not they were opposed to legalization for immigrants in the country illegally.
  2. Rubio, though, had another solid performance — and made a big play for religious voters. He repeatedly noted his own faith and how it influenced him. Christian conservatives are an important voting bloc in Iowa, which votes Monday. But Rubio has a lot of ground to make up because Cruz and Trump are doing better with them.
  3. The debate had fewer insults and allowed establishment candidates to step up. Both former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush seemed the most at ease of any debate so far and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie was a presence. They probably helped themselves in New Hampshire where they're focused. Gov. John Kasich, who has done well in past debates, didn't seem to make a big impression tonight, though. (Speaking of not making much of an impression, neurosurgeon Ben Carson again struggled. He bumbled a question on foreign policy and seemed surprised when moderators called on him.)
  4. Trump was still the big story, though. He held his veterans fundraiser three miles from the debate site, saying he raised $6 million, including $1 million of his own money. His ongoing feud with Fox News continued to play out as the biggest drama of the night. They argued over who called who, how many times, and whether there was an apology. Fox even said Trump asked for $5 million for his charity in order for him to attend the debate. Still, Trump didn't have to face tough questions. -Jessica Taylor, political reporter

Our NPR Politics team — here in Washington, D.C., and in Iowa and New Hampshire — kept you updated on everything happening tonight, so get caught up even more below. Welcome to The Stream.


Trump still wins ... at least in the Twitterverse

Trump still did best Thursday night on one of his favorite social media platforms: Twitter. According to data from Twitter, Trump still picked up the most followers. Here are the rankings:

1. @RealDonaldTrump

2. @MarcoRubio

3. @TedCruz

4. @RandPaul

5. @ChrisChristie

And who was Twitter talking the most about? Still Trump.

-@RealDonaldTrump 36%

-@TedCruz 16%

-@MarcoRubio 13%

-Jessica Taylor, political reporter, 12 a.m.


Meanwhile, back in New Hampshire ... all politics are local

As the organizers gathered up the bingo cards and pens, the New Hampshire GOP voters put on their winter coats to head back into the chilly Manchester night. Ultimately, the sparing may not have moved the needle — most of the undecided voters here said they were still undecided after watching the debate.

"This was kind of aimed at Iowa," one undecided voter said. "They talked a lot about faith and ethanol. New Hampshire is a more libertarian, economic state."

One undecided 20-something-year-old voter said his key takeaway was "There's signs of life in the Jeb Bush campaign."

Another millennial voter said she's torn between the two Floridians: Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio.

"I think Bush was less flustered than I've seen him," she said. But, then she added, "I think Rubio might be more electable in a general election."

An undecided baby boomer sitting by himself with a cell phone at an adjacent table said Bush is the one candidate on the stage he's not excited about. "I just think he's the establishment pick" he said. He said he's seen every presidential candidate, with the exception of John Kasich, in person this campaign season, and, he would be okay with any of them, even Donald Trump, because all the Republicans are better than Hillary Clinton. —Asma Khalid, campaign reporter


Wrapping it up

Candidates made their closing statements as the Fox News Iowa Republican debate wrapped. Here's a quick summary of their closing statements:

  • Rand Paul: We need to cut our debt and I'm a true conservative who can do that.
  • John Kasich: We need to have a positive attitude and be optimistic in order to fix the country's problems.
  • Chris Christie: I'm a prosecutor and I'll take on terrorists
  • Jeb Bush: I'm a conservative and I'm a proven leader and can best take on Hillary Clinton
  • Ben Carson: He recited the preamble to the Constitution.
  • Marco Rubio: If I'm your nominee, I will unite the party and defeat Hillary Clinton.
  • Ted Cruz: Examine each candidate's conservative records pray about it, and come caucus for me. —Jessica Taylor, political reporter, 11 p.m.

Trump tries to make Fox the establishment

After days in which friction matured into outright hostility, Fox News Chairman Roger Ailes spoke three times with Donald Trump on Thursday to try to see if he could be coaxed into participating in the network's Republican presidential debate. Among other gibes, Ailes suggested that Trump would fill his White House cabinet with his twitter followers - an unprecedented ridiculing of a major party front-runner by a leading news organization. Fox's emergence as a ratings leader and dominance in cable news - reliant on a large niche - was built on the conceit the rest of the news media is misleading the public. Trump has cast the network as unfair and biased, turning the network's formula on its head and categorizing it as part of the mainstream media unpopular with many Republican primary voters. — David Folkenflik, media correspondent, 11:00 p.m.


Christie's Clinton jujitsu

Again and again (and in debate after debate before) Christie has managed to turn almost every question he's asked back around to a hit against Hillary Clinton. This time, he's asked about his own Bridgegate scandal and reiterates he did nothing wrong — but that Clinton did with her private email server while at State. And that Republicans need a prosecutor (he's a former U.S. attorney) to take on Clinton, not another Washington politician. -Jessica Taylor, political reporter, 10:38 p.m.


Opposition to cap-and-trade

Rubio was asked about his past support for a cap-and-trade program to curb carbon emissions. Rubio said he was "the first person out of the box" to oppose an effort by then-Republican Florida Gov. Charlie Crist to implement a cap-and-trade system in Florida. Rubio called Crist a "liberal governor of Florida who claimed he was a Republican." (Crist later ran against him for Senate as an independent and later became a Democrat.) Rubio said he's never supported cap and trade, but he did urge the legislature to "get out in front" of the issue. It's a subject that has come up before in this campaign.

Interestingly, the cap-and-trade concept had early GOP support as a market-based solution to climate change. It's now largely fallen out of favor among Republicans. — Sarah McCammon, campaign reporter, 10:32 p.m.


Rubio vs. Cruz breaks out

Many people predicted early on that with Trump off the stage, elbows would be thrown between Rubio and Cruz, and that held true. It was instigated though by Fox News, who in a new and enterprising move, pressed both the men on their past support of immigration reform not just by citing their own words, but showing clips. It was essentially forcing them to watch and then respond to an attack ad.

For Rubio, it showed clips of him during his 2010 Senate campaign saying he would oppose legalization for illegal immigrants and then was an architect of the Senate immigration reform bill. And then clips of Cruz showed him arguing for a Senate amendment saying he would support legalization. Cruz said it was simply a "poison pill" designed to kill the larger bill, but his bumbled defense of it is the subject of a Trump attack ad airing against him. Jeb Bush also saw an opening, attacking his onetime protege of being inauthentic for changing his views; Rubio shot back that Bush had evolved too in his book.

Overall though, the fact Republicans are attacking each other on the important issue only helps Trump in absentia with his greatest argument — immigration enforcement and building a wall.

Trump, meanwhile, held his own event a few miles away, touting the money he had raised to support veterans (though it's not clear which groups). Trump said he donated $1 million himself, and claimed they've raised $5 million total. Fellow candidates Rick Santorum and Mike Huckabee came to Trump's event after participating in the undercard debate. They each took the lectern and joked about Trump and veterans issues. —Jessica Taylor, political reporter, 10:30 p.m.


Nobody is energizing like Trump

It must be said, the absence of Donald Trump enables other candidates to scrap with each other and enliven the evening as best they can. But none of them is quite as good at electrifying the proceedings. Does that make this debate less meaningful than the six predecessors, or more meaningful for voters still open to persuasion? The best example of candidates engaging at length with sharp points without Trump: Rubio and Bush tussling about how they both changed from supporting a path to citizenship to opposing it. Two Floridians, squaring off at a few paces, not unlike Aaron Burr and Alexander Hamilton in another era. – Ron Elving, senior editor, 10:25 p.m.


Kasich seems out of sync

John Kasich is appealing in an almost puppyish way, but his efforts to make the debate about the actual job of being a practical, pragmatic administrator of government is wildly out of sync with the mood of the debate and the mood of the moment. Ben Carson, while as charming as ever, seems more remote from the substance of the campaign with every succeeding debate. Ron Elving, senior editor, 10:20 p.m.


Meanwhile, at a New Hampshire country club

About three dozen Republicans met a country club in Manchester, N.H., to watch the GOP debate. (Many had gathered here earlier in the evening to celebrate the New Hampshire primary's 100th birthday). A mix of millennials and baby boomers watched the live stream on a projector screen — some played Bingo with cards that listed words like "Trans-Pacific" or "taxes." A number of these New Hampshire voters say they're still undecided. But, some seemed definite about one thing — their dislike for Ted Cruz. Applause erupted when Cruz said he might have to walk off the debate stage if the mean questions continued. One undecided 40-year old voter said he's leaning toward Marco Rubio – he likes his "temperament." He says the Florida senator always seems to make a "substantive" argument. A 26-year-old undecided voter interrupted him to point out that Rubio "hasn't done anything." He, instead, wants someone with more experience and is considering Jeb Bush, Chris Christie, and John Kasich (in that order). — Asma Khalid, campaign reporter, 10:00 p.m.


Trump still dominating online

Even without Trump in the room, Google Trends is reporting that Trump is still the number one candidate being searched tonight. I'm watching a minute-by-minute stream in the media filing center in Des Moines, and second-place search status has been rotating between several of the other candidates, including Cruz, Rubio, Carson, and Kasich. — Sarah McCammon, campaign reporter, 9:55 p.m.


The undercard debate afterparty

Trump just introduced two other candidates in the audience, Mike Huckabee and Rick Santorum, who came here after their participation in the earlier lower-tier debate "Hey fellas, come on up here," he said as they joined him onstage. "How did they do at the early debate?", Trump asked. "They probably did OK or they wouldn't be here."

Santorum spoke first: "I'm standing off to the side so I'm not photographed with a Trump sign!" He also joked that, "I'm supporting a different candidate for president," and then switched to the topic of the night, improving care for veterans.

Huckabee stepped to the lectern with TRUMP on the front, and laughed "I figured you're gonna get the photo anyway, so I'll just stand here." Huckabee thanked Trump for asking him and Santorum to take part in the event. "Bigger than even the election is that we wouldn't have free elections in this country if it weren't for the people that stood between bullets and bombs for our freedom." —Don Gonyea, national political correspondent, 9:50 p.m.


Trump speaks

At his event just miles away, Trump says he's here and not at the prime-time debate because when you're treated badly "you have to stick up for your rights." Trump then quickly segued into how the country needs to do that do, complaining about the bad deal with Iran. It's a sharp turn from personal grudge into policy, but this is a Trump event. He added that he started his event 15 minutes after the debate began because Fox hadn't been nice to him. He also boasted that he has more cameras at his event: "It's just like the Academy Awards!"

This is a Trump campaign speech, with a little less volume. He's talking about vets, but still working in other topics that he always covers in his speeches – negotiating better deals with China, why he's self-funding his own campaign, how incredible his Iowa and national supporters are. —Don Gonyea, national political correspondent, 9:47 p.m.


Cruz feels the heat

The early prediction was that Ted Cruz would get most of the incoming fire with Trump not on stage, and so far that's proven true. Rubio attacked him over foreign policy, and the Fox News moderators have tried to goad other rivals into engaging him; Chris Christie didn't take the bait, and attacked Hillary Clinton instead.

Cruz's tongue-in-cheek response? ""If you ask one more mean question, I may have to leave the stage." Rubio joked next, "Don't worry, I'm not leaving the stage no matter what you ask me." —Jessica Taylor, political reporter, 9:45 p.m.


Trump vs. Fox News continues

Donald Trump isn't on the Fox News Iowa GOP debate stage, but he's still making plenty of news even as it's going on.

In an interview with CNN just ahead of the start, Trump said someone Fox News called him and apologized (he wouldn't say who). He's still upset about a sarcastic press release the network put out Tuesday mocking his objections to moderator Megyn Kelly. He might have decided to go to the debate, he said, but now he was already committed to his own event.

Fox News recounted it differently, saying in a statement that chairman Roger Ailes had brief conversations, not "multiple calls," with Trump but that there was no apology. And that Trump had said he would attend the debate, but only if Fox gave $5 million to his charities.

"We explained that was not possible and we could not engage in a quid pro quo, nor could any money change hands for any reason. In the last 48 hours, we've kept two issues at the forefront — we would never compromise our journalistic standards and we would always stand by our journalist, Megyn Kelly," a Fox News spokesperson said. —Jessica Taylor, political reporter, 9:40 p.m.


Trump will donate $1 million

On stage at his own event, Donald Trump began by reading a list of donations that he says will go to support veterans: Trump himself will donate $1 million; another "rich guy from New York," who wished to remain anonymous, donated another million and the CEO of Marvel Ike Perlmutter has also donated $1 million, and he claims they've raised $6 million total already. Trump directed his supporters to donaldtrumpforvets.com, where they could also donate. The website says that more than $430,000 have been raised today and at the bottom of the page, it appears to say that the money is going to the Donald J. Trump Foundation. — Eyder Peralta, reporter, 9:35 p.m.


Ted Cruz Auditing The Fed

Ted Cruz pledges that if elected president he will finally enact a controversial proposal to audit the Federal Reserve. But recent history suggests that will be tough even if Republicans control all levers of government come 2017. The U.S. House has passed audit legislation on several occasions, but the Senate as recently as this month again failed to muster the 60 votes they'd need to pass a Fed audit bill authored by Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky. It fell seven votes short. Cruz missed the vote. Supporters would either need a Senate GOP super-majority, or new allies in the Democratic Party to make it happen, and neither political reality is on the horizon. — Susan Davis, congressional reporter, 9:30 p.m.


The legacy of Rand's father

Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul was asked if his campaign should have more aggressively embraced the legacy of his father, former Texas Rep. Ron Paul. Four years ago, Ron Paul's libertarian message energized many young voters, helping to propel him to a third-place finish in the Iowa caucuses. His supporters went on to temporarily take control of much of the state's GOP machinery. Early on in the run-up to the 2016 race, Rand Paul was seen as having a leg up in the field, and as someone who could unite libertarian-leaning Republicans with other factions like Christian conservatives and the Tea Party movement. Paul responded to the question by saying he thinks he will do well with the liberty movement in Iowa, prompting cheers from the audience. —Sarah McCammon, campaign reporter, 9:20 p.m.


Cruz has been questioning Trump's temperament

On the campaign trail in both Iowa and New Hampshire in recent days, Ted Cruz has been promising, as he just did on the debate stage, not to "respond in kind" to Donald Trump's attacks. But he's also been stepping up his criticism of Trump, casting doubt on his conservative credentials by questioning his record on issues like abortion and same-sex marriage. Cruz is also raising questions about Trump's temperament. He's compared Trump's decision to skip the final debate before the Iowa Caucuses to skipping a job interview. —Sarah McCammon, campaign reporter, 9:15 p.m.


First gentlemen, your Trump jokes

The first question to Ted Cruz, now at center stage with Trump gone, is of course about the billionaire businessman. Cruz first emphasizes how much he loves Iowa — his family's been everywhere, his father has preached in its churches and promises that if he's president Iowa won't be "flyover country."

But as to Trump, Cruz gets this off his chest: "I'm a maniac, and everyone on this stage is stupid, fat, and Ben [Carson], you're a terrible surgeon. Now that we've got the Donald Trump portion of out of the way...." Marco Rubio concedes that Trump is "the most entertaining guy on Earth" but the election is about much more than that. And Jeb Bush — who has gotten the brunt of Trump's criticism by calling him "low energy" — jokes that "I kind of miss Donald Trump — he was a little teddy bear to me." But he also makes a swipe at his rivals for not being critical enough of Trump, saying "Everybody else was in the witness protections program when I went after him." —Jessica Taylor, political reporter, 9:07 p.m.


Santorum says Trump invited him

Former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum says he was invited to attend Donald Trump's rally for veterans in Des Moines — not the other way around.

Donald Trump had tweeted earlier that he received calls from two candidates wanting to attend the event.

"I got a phone call inviting me to the event, and that's what I responded to," Santorum told reporters after the undercard debate. "Maybe this is just showing that things aren't as zero-sum as some would suggest, that we can actually take a pause (and) do something that's positive for our nation's veterans."

Santorum says he will "take any opportunity to talk to Iowans" and plans to ask attendees at the rally to caucus for him instead of Trump. —Sarah McCammon, campaign reporter, 9:00 p.m.


Waiting for Trump, with six flags

At Trump's competing event across Des Moines at Drake University, the stage is adorned far more simply than at a typical Trump rally. The nearly empty stage at the intimate Sheslow Auditorium on campus has one medium sized flag on the back wall — suspended between the still partially closed curtains. There's a lectern with a small "TRUMP" campaign sign affixed to the front. A simple black leather chair and simple wooden end table a few feet behind and to the left of the lectern. Finally, there are six American flags — three on one side, three on the other — on standing flag poles, each with the gold eagle on top.

Opening speakers are taking turns before the candidate takes the stage. No explanation just yet how this event actually raises money for veterans organizations. – Don Gonyea, national political correspondent. 8:40 p.m.


Emphasis on poverty

In the earlier undercard debate, Mike Huckabee said it's "stupid" to suggest that people want to be poor. That's a theme that a growing number of Republicans have been stressing, most visibly at a poverty forum in South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott and House Speaker Paul Ryan earlier this month. Some leading Republicans are advocating a fresh and more empathetic approach to poverty, focused on promoting conservative solutions. They say the party needs to convince voters it's sympathetic to their economic struggles or the GOP will become, as former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush put it, "a minority party." Several presidential hopefuls talked about how their own experiences shaped their understanding of poverty. However, two leading figures in the GOP race did not attend - Donald Trump and Texas Sen. Ted Cruz. — Sarah McCammon, campaign reporter, 8:30 p.m.


Gil-mentum?

Making his reappearance for the first time since August to the debate stage was former Virginia Gov. Jim Gilmore — he's an asterisk in the polls and hasn't even made the cut for the undercard debate. But for his new debut, Gilmore did quite well and was pretty lively at times.

And Google, which is co-sponsoring debate, picked up on the upward trend for Gilmore. In the first 20 minutes of the undercard debate, Google searches for his name spiked 700 percent according to Google Trends. That's a big spike, but not really a surprise, given how little Gilmore has campaigned. He had nowhere to go but up.

But, Gilmore's focus isn't on Iowa he noted — he's looking toward New Hampshire, he admitted in the debate. — Sarah McCammon and Jessica Taylor, political reporters, 8:25 p.m.


The last of the undercard debates?

The "undercard" debate that just finished — featuring former Hewlett Packard CEO Carly Fiorina, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee and former Virginia Gov. Jim Gilmore — could be the final one of this cycle. The Feb. 6 New Hampshire debate, broadcast by ABC News, is set to only have one debate, featuring the top finishers in Iowa and top polling candidates in New Hampshire.

It was make or break time for some of the candidates, and the Fox News moderators weren't hiding the fact these candidates had a long way to go — including Santorum and Huckabee, who won the Iowa caucuses in 2012 and 2008, respectively. They defended their candidates and bashed the media for not covering them enough — including Fox News, something that's still a bit jarring coming from Republicans, but it's a trickle down effect from Trump's bombast against the conservative network. Both of them will appear later at Trump's counter event for veterans.

Fiorina, who had a brief bump in the polls that had her in the main debate, was ready with plenty of quips, mainly against Hillary Clinton, for what could be her last stand. She jabbed that the Democratic candidate had "escaped prosecution more times than El Chapo" and that "if my husband did what Bill Clinton did, I would have left him long ago." — Jessica Taylor, political reporter, 8:15 p.m.