5 takeaways from the Republican debate

Updated 11:25 AM EST, Fri January 29, 2016
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Story highlights

Without Donald Trump, the GOP presidential field tried to win points just days before the Iowa caucuses, but the debate exposed few new rifts between the candidates

(CNN) —  

The biggest elephant wasn’t in the room – so Ted Cruz stood center stage, taking punches from his opponents and the moderators.

But how much did this matter? The Fox News debate Thursday night exposed few new rifts between the contenders and featured candidates mostly sticking to message.

Donald Trump was elsewhere, and here’s what he missed:

It’s time to vote. Now.

The debate had a lackluster quality, and it’s not just because Trump wasn’t there. Perhaps because Trump’s dominance drove them to desperation in earlier debates, every candidate had thrown his best punch before strutting onto stage Thursday night.

It was like getting the band back together to play the greatest hits: New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie said Washington stinks. Texas Sen. Ted Cruz and Florida Sen. Marco Rubio questioned each other’s character. Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul doesn’t like the National Security Agency. Ben Carson reminded voters he’s not a professional politician.

Viewers learned little new about the candidates’ policy stances, and – aside from Jeb Bush showing the kind of passion his supporters have long craved – they also saw few stylistic differences.

This debate won’t change many minds. So close to the first votes being cast, the candidates were either trying not to stumble before the Iowa caucuses, or trying to survive and advance to the New Hampshire primary. It’s time to give them what they want.

Fact-checking the candidates’ claims

Whither The Donald?

Everyone had their one-liners about Trump as the debate opened.

Cruz joked, in his opening statement: “I’m a maniac, and everyone on this stage is stupid, fat and ugly. Ben, you’re a terrible surgeon. Now that we’ve gotten the Donald Trump portion out of the way…”

Offered Bush: “I kind of miss Donald Trump. He was a little teddy bear to me. Everybody else was in the witness protection program when I went after him.”

Donald Trump says he raised nearly $6 million for veterans with debate boycott

But for most of the night, he was ignored.

His absence exposed a reality of most of the Republican debates: Bombastic as he’s been, Trump was never really at the center of any policy battles. What he brought was personality – so the only way to tell whether his absence affected much comes not in the substance, but in the TV ratings.

His rival event – a rally and fundraiser for veterans – caused a split-screen atmosphere for GOP voters and even drew two of his competitors to join him. Undercard debaters Mike Huckabee and Rick Santorum – the winners of the last two Republican caucuses in Iowa – stood on stage with the front-runner.

Knives out for Cruz

Without Trump on stage, Cruz entered the night expecting to be bounced around like a pinball.

He survived – but it wasn’t always pretty and some thought the Texas senator did worse than others. The Des Moines Register ruled it a “Rough night for Cruz” in its front-page above-the-fold review of the debate.