American Republican candidates -- or most of them -- gathered on-stage in Iowa to tangle, one last time; however, the shadow of the real estate mogul loomed large.
He was called ‘Voldemort’ and referred to as the ‘elephant not in the room’, but one thing was certain. Even though he was absent for the Fox News Republican debate in Des Moines, Iowa, Donald Trump’s presence was still very much felt.
In the first question of the night, debate moderator Megyn Kelly -- the primary reason for Trump’s absence -- brought up the brash real estate mogul, referring to him as “the elephant not in the room.”
Trump decided to skip the debate, the last before the Iowa caucuses, after Fox News refused to remove Kelly from the moderating panel. The Republican presidential front-runner has been locked in a very public feud with Kelly since August last year, when she pressed him at the first GOP debate on his disparaging remarks about women and he afterward accused her of having blood pouring out of her “wherever”.
And it wasn’t just Kelly who took potshots at the real estate mogul.
Ted Cruz, the Texas senator, taking aim at Trump, said, “Let me say, I'm a maniac. And everyone on this stage is stupid, fat and ugly and Ben, you're a terrible surgeon. Now that we've gotten the Donald Trump portion out of the way…”
Marco Rubio said the 2016 presidential campaign is “not about Donald Trump.”
Jeb Bush, who has been increasingly combative with Trump during the debates, joked that he wished Trump was there. He appeared to take a swipe at his rivals on stage for not taking on Trump as aggressively as he has.
“I kind of miss Donald Trump. He was a little teddy bear to me,” Bush said. “Everybody else was in the witness protection program when I went after him”.
However, soon the debate turned serious with Cruz Rubio, sparring over immigration reform, with Jeb Bush repeatedly forced to defend his role as an “establishment candidate” and with Cruz at one point threatening -- it wasn’t clear if it was a joke - to walk off the stage if moderator Chris Wallace asked him one more “mean” question.
Five minute away from the debate centre, Trump supporters gathered at Drake University, where the billionaire businessman was hosting a rival event billed as benefiting veterans.
"I wanted to be about five minutes away (at the GOP debate)... but you have to stick up for your rights. When you're treated badly, you have to stick up to your rights," Trump told a packed auditorium, where he raised USD 6 million for veterans.
"I have to go a step further and say that Fox has been extremely nice in the last number of hours," he said. "They called a few minutes ago. Can you come over? I say, hasn't it already started?" he joked.
Hundreds of Trump supporters were seen waiting for hours to enter the auditorium for the event organised at a short notice after the real estate tycoon had a simmering feud with the conservative Fox News, which hosted the primary debate.
The 69-year-old billionaire, who has been leading national and local polls among the crowded Republican candidates, said he decided to skip the debate because he was treated "very unfairly" by Fox News.
At the event, Trump was joined by two other Republican presidential candidates, Mike Huckabee and Rick Santorum, who interestingly were the winners of the last two Iowa caucuses.
"Let me be very clear... Rick Santorum, Donald Trump and I may be competitors in a presidential race, but tonight we are colleagues in unison standing here for the... veterans of the United States of America," Huckabee said.
Earlier in an interview to CNN, Trump claimed that Fox News apologised to him. "They called me. They want me there very badly. And by the time they apologised, I said, look, the problem is we now have a big event scheduled for the vets."
However, Fox News in a statement said the network's CEO Roger Ailes had "three brief conversations" with Trump, where he "acknowledged his concerns about a satirical observation we made in order to quell the attacks on (anchor) Megyn Kelly, and prevent her from being smeared any further."
Fox said Trump offered to show up at the debate if the network contributed USD 5 million to his charities.
"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," the network said.