Thursday's Republican presidential debate on Fox News Channel was serious, substantive, and filled with thoughtful policy statements from major candidates. Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio, Rand Paul, and Ted Cruz delivered solid performances. Yet there was something missing: The Republican frontrunner Donald Trump, who skipped the debate because of a dispute with the cable news powerhouse. I watched the program attentively, yet was left puzzled by what I saw. It's hard to determine who wins when the candidate who leads the polls and has determined the grounds of political discussion is nowhere to be seen.
The two hour debate was thus a glimpse of what the Republican presidential race might have looked like if Donald Trump hadn't entered it in June. Jeb Bush was a strong advocate of compassionate conservatism. Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz demonstrated why they are rising stars in the GOP. Rand Paul did what he does best—introduce a principled libertarian perspective to staid conservative Republican discourse. John Kasich was, well, himself. Apparently there are people who find him appealing.
But it's Donald Trump who is in command of the Republican primary, and his absence was palpable. He was the subject of the first few questions, and Jeb Bush, to his credit, used Trump as a foil throughout the proceedings. But mainly the candidates used this opportunity not to argue against Trump but to jostle for second place behind him. How that improves their overall chances of winning the nomination, I do not know.
What I find interesting is that none of the candidates on the debate stage have figured out how to respond to the issues driving Trump's ascent. Trump focuses on four things: immigration, trade, political correctness, and a corrupt and inept system. These subjects cross partisan lines and are responsible for the unusual nature of the Trump coalition. But because Trump's views on immigration and trade and political correctness and campaign finance are so askance from the Republican mainstream, the other candidates barely touch him.
Either Donald Trump is for real or he's not. If his voters show up, he will be the Republican nominee for president in 2016. If they don't, then Cruz, Rubio, even Bush have a shot at taking his place.
I have one more takeaway from the debate. When Dulce Candy appeared on the scene, I realized it's time to stop talking and start voting. Iowa is 93 hours away.