Update: 8:03 p.m. Fox News moderators Megyn Kelly, Bret Baier and Chris Wallace pulled from a grab bag of questions for the seven standing candidates during the final minutes of Thursday’s main debate. Each candidate made his own case about why he was most aligned with the heart of conservatism and most unlike the Democratic competition, specifically Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders.

Religion was a go-to topic, raised both directly in questions asked and invoked unprompted in some presidential hopefuls’ answers. For instance, responding to the claim, which materialized in a recent Time magazine cover story, that he was the “Republican savior,” Florida Sen. Marco Rubio made an open play for the evangelical vote: “There’s only one savior, and it’s not me—it’s Jesus Christ,” he said.

Religion met abortion in Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul’s reminder that he had recently pushed a “Life at Conception Act,” following the anti-abortion leads of New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, and earlier, in the undercard debate, Carly Fiorina.

Christie drew a big reaction with one anti-Clinton flourish when he vowed—with Twitter-ready quotes—that if elected, he’d keep Hillary and Bill Clinton far away from the White House, as “the days for the Clintons in public housing are over.”

Rubio generated another of the evening’s highly played zingers when he slammed the “socialist” Sanders: “I think Bernie Sanders is a good candidate for president … of Sweden.”

Ohio Gov. John Kasich advocated for the mentally ill, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush advocated supporting moderate Muslims and knocked Donald Trump for “disparaging women” and disabled people. Ben Carson again came across blurry and slurry, making perplexing statements, such as “Putin is a one-horse country,” and delivering little in the way of policy details.

Paul and Kasich made solid showings (and every candidate could use a fan base like Paul’s), while Christie was there to scare by bringing forth the twin specters of terrorism and another President Clinton.

Most of the contenders benefited from Trump’s absence, though in many respects he was still in the room. Bush may hang on for another round, and Texas Sen. Ted Cruz and Rubio will each claim victory, but nobody emerged as the GOP’s surefire savior on the Iowa stage Thursday night.

Check back Friday on Truthdig for post-debate reports and commentary. * * *

Update: 7:21 p.m. Immigration dominated the first stretch of the debate’s second hour. It started with Cruz versus Bush, but Cruz clashed most vigorously with Rubio. The latter pair were shown clips of themselves making statements that seemed to contradict policies they currently support and were asked if they’ve effectively changed their positions without notifying voters. Pathways to legalization, amnesty and securing the border were among the topics on the table.

Cornered about his stance on amnesty and defending his record, Rubio insisted, “I do not support blanket amnesty.” Cruz wasn’t ready to let that one stand, suggesting they both had made the same promise to their supporters: “If you elect me, I will lead the fight against amnesty.”

Cruz claimed he was the only one to honor that commitment. Rubio begged to differ, shooting back at Cruz, “Now you wanna trump Trump on immigration.” Rubio clearly got the memo that this is the age of campaigning in 140 characters or less. * * *

Update: 7:04 p.m. Next, the debate turned to hot-button topics such as foreign policy, free speech, abortion, health care reform and data encryption, as well as that favorite GOP bugaboo, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.

After catching some heat from moderators about his voting record on the federal defense spending bill, Cruz took another shot at Trump while handily pointing out how he was being piled on by moderators and competitors alike. “If you guys ask one more mean question, I might have to leave the stage,” he joked.

Rubio weighed in on how he would confront radical Islam on a domestic scale and was briefly grilled about impinging on First Amendment rights by targeting what he would consider extremist hate speech. “It’s not just hate talk; it’s hate action,” Rubio claimed, suggesting that he would take such steps as closing down mosques in America.

Paul blew the libertarian whistle. “That’s a huge mistake to be closing down mosques,” he said. Carson contributed the fuzzy declaration that “we need to stop allowing political correctness to direct our messages, because it’s going to kill us if we don’t.”

Christie’s strategy seemed to be getting a word in edgewise on familiar wedge issues. “Let’s get rid of Planned Parenthood funding,” the New Jersey governor said—to applause. “When you see thousands and thousands and thousands of children being murdered in the womb, I can’t think of anything bigger than that,” he added.

In other mid-debate moments, Cruz advocated for dismantling Obamacare and replacing it with “personal, portable and affordable” health care plans that individuals could count on no matter what their employment status. What that idea would actually entail—and it wouldn’t be a single-payer scheme—and how he plans to implement it, he didn’t say.

Bush said the “first duty” of the next president will be to “fix the mess of the Department of Veterans Affairs.” Kasich sounded a bit un-Republican while addressing the botched response of Michigan’s Gov. Rick Snyder to the water crisis in that state: “Well, you gotta be on top of it right away,” he said. “Every single engine of government has to move to be on top of that.” * * *

Update: 6:36 p.m. Trump never entered the building, but his presence loomed large from the get-go during the main debate in Des Moines. This time, the candidates who made the cut at the Fox News-sponsored showdown were Cruz, Rubio, Carson, Kasich, Paul, Christie and Bush.

Megyn Kelly, who has been tracking, and irking, Trump for half a year, came right out by suggesting to Cruz, the missing candidate’s foremost rival, “Let’s address the elephant not in the room tonight—Donald Trump.”

Being the master debater he is, Cruz was ready for Kelly, as well as for Trump in absentia. First, complimenting states other than New York (what with its “New York values”), Cruz vowed to change Iowa from “flyover country,” as it might be viewed by certain bicoastal elites, to “fly-to country.”

Then he let fly with his opening salvo at Trump: “I’m a maniac, and everyone on this stage is stupid, fat and ugly, and Ben [Carson], you’re a terrible surgeon,” Cruz quipped, adding, “Now that we’ve gotten the Donald Trump portion out of the way …,” drawing a smattering of golf claps from the audience.

Bush, another frequent Trump target, got in his own potshot before defending his identity as a member of the establishment. “I miss Donald Trump—he was such a teddy bear to me,” Bush said, claiming that “everyone else was in the witness protection program” except for him in prior faceoffs with the GOP. Defending his bloodline, Bush called his father, former President George H.W. Bush, “the greatest man on earth,” and argued, “This election is not about our pedigree—it’s about people who are really hurting.”

But in fact, the first portion of Thursday’s main debate was all about identity, and for Paul as well as Bush, identity had to do with family. Fox’s Baier neatly tied Trump in with Paul’s own dad, former presidential candidate and libertarian champion Ron Paul, by noting, “Your father now says it’s realistic that Donald Trump will become the Republican nominee” and asking if the younger Paul had made a mistake in not “embracing” his father’s legacy more. Paul shot back that his campaign was doing well cornering the “liberty vote.”

Finally, Rubio, to whom many mainstream Republicans have been anxiously looking to bump outsiders Cruz and Trump out of the running, clearly thought it was in his best interest to play upon notes of party harmony and aggressive foreign policy in setting himself apart from the pack. Dismissing Trump with robust praise by declaring “he’s the greatest show on earth,” Rubio talked up American exceptionalism and tried to take down the Democratic competition. “We don’t wanna be like the rest of the world … and that is why Hillary Clinton cannot win this election,” he said, claiming his usefulness in resolving the party’s identity crisis. “If I’m our nominee, I will unite this party,” Rubio added. * * *

With just four days to go before the Iowa caucuses, the stakes haven’t been higher for Republican presidential candidates, and judging by the rhetoric flying fast and loose during the Fox News-backed undercard debate in Des Moines, the GOP aspirants to the White House are willing to say whatever it takes to hit their target.

This time the seventh warm-up act (more on that note later) consisted of former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, onetime Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, former Virginia Gov. Jim Gilmore and Fox-picked moderators Martha MacCallum and Bill Hemmer.

Huckabee and Fiorina seemed to have come down with simultaneous bouts of sudden-onset populism, suggesting a move to co-opt some of the ideas that have gained traction among candidates from the other side of the aisle. On two occasions Fiorina declared, “The game is rigged,” which evidently had more to do with the media’s role in framing and weighting presidential contests than it did with calling for a crackdown on Wall Street, judging by her follow-up commentary. “The establishment thinks it owns this country,” Fiorina intoned, clearly not counting her status as former chief executive of one of the biggest tech corporations in the world as grounds to be included among that elite group. “You have the power—take our country back,” she urged.

Huckabee also attempted to distance himself from the fat-cat class by noting how his campaign is “not bankrolled by the corporatists,” name-checking big Wall Street players like Goldman Sachs and AIG while he was at it. “If you follow the money, the same folks who finance the Democrats finance the Republicans,” he noted, adding that changing the way campaigns are funded is the way to get a “different result.” Later, he pushed back on the persistent myth of the lazy underclass. “I resent it when people say people are poor because they want to be. No, they’re not.” (Here’s a bit of background on who’s been stuffing his campaign coffers.)

They sound like promising, if disingenuous, notions—but how exactly is a more egalitarian outcome supposed to result from a GOP-friendly scheme in which big government and regulation represent the enemy, at least on the lip-service level?

MacCallum and Hemmer gamely grabbed onto the anti-establishment thread as they repeatedly drew viewers’ attention to the crisis of economic inequality while advocating for a vastly smaller government. After MacCallum rightly observed that those living around the Beltway are getting richer and richer while communities around America are economically imploding, she volleyed the kind of leading question that gets a girl hired by Fox CEO Roger Ailes: “Is this presidency—any presidency—simply too small a David to slay the Goliath of government?”

Next to big government, the other popular behemoth at which all four candidates took aim was the mainstream media, not excluding Fox News. Gilmore, Fiorina, Santorum and Huckabee took turns pointing out the injustice of some of the questions they were asked, of news outlets’ obsession with candidates like Donald Trump at the exclusion of other contenders, of being relegated to the undercard debate to begin with. While gripes about the mainstream media’s oppressive grip on the campaigning process were many, mentions of the campaign finance mayhem unleashed by Citizens United registered at zero.

In other key moments, Fiorina hammered Hillary Clinton hard on Benghazi, once again brandishing snappy, Twitter-ready one-liners as she reminded voters who might have forgotten since the last GOP debate that she’s still in the running. Clinton “escaped prosecution more often than El Chapo—perhaps Sean Penn should interview her,” Fiorina said, piling on to one of the right’s most reviled Hollywood figures.

Meanwhile, Gilmore emphasized his veteran status at every opportunity and jumped at the chance to slam Santorum and Huckabee for, as the moderators helpfully noted early in the hour, agreeing to spend the latter part of their evening with absentee candidate Donald Trump across town at the GOP front-runner’s fundraiser for veterans. “I’m not going to any Donald Trump event across town on some sort of faux veteran issue,” Gilmore said.

Although Huckabee couldn’t talk his way out of that one, he was able to avoid incurring the wrath of voters from a certain state in the nation’s northeast by picking up the “New York values” trope Ted Cruz started at the last debate. “I’m not going to get into an argument with New Yorkers, because there’s a lot of ’em,” Huckabee said in a fleeting moment of transparency.

—Posted by Kasia Anderson

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