With Donald Trump boycotting the Fox News Republican presidential debates on Thursday night, the stage was set for an epic clash between Senators Ted Cruz (R-TX) and Marco Rubio (R-FL), and the two did not disappoint.
Cruz early on was asked to "address the elephant not in the room," and said, "I’m a maniac, and everyone on this stage is stupid, fat and ugly…now that we’ve gotten the Donald Trump portion out of the way."
Trump had announced he would be holding an event for veterans instead, after making yet more disparaging remarks against Fox journalist Megyn Kelly and badmouthing the news channel for "playing games" with him.
The station's chairman Roger Ailes said he had spoken with Trump three times on Thursday.
"Trump offered to appear at the debate upon the condition that FOX News contribute $5 million to his charities,” said a Fox spokesperson. “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. We have accomplished those two goals and we are pleased with the outcome.”
Thursday's debate is the last before Iowa caucuses next Monday, where polls show an even race between Trump and Cruz, with Rubio not far behind in third, and retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson continuing his downward trend from recent weeks.
But even with Trump not on the stage, the debate featured plenty of fireworks between Cruz and Rubio, who clashed over "amnesty" for illegal immigrants who are already in America.
The two accused one another of lying about the issue and changing their position from one of support for "amnesty" to a more conservative policy.
They also clashed over defense spending, after Cruz said he would "utterly and completely destroy ISIS (Islamic State)."
“The only budget that Ted has ever voted for was a budget that Rand Paul sponsored that brags about cutting defense spending,” Rubio said. In response Cruz insisted that he would "carpet bomb" the enemy as was done in the first Iraq war.
The last debate earlier this month was characterized by the first head-to-head clashes between Cruz and Trump, amid growing tensions in the Iowa race.
A new Pew Research Center poll this Wednesday indicated potential troubles for the real estate mogul's campaign, finding that nearly 60% of American think Trump is not religious or not religious enough, with 51% saying they were less likely to vote for a non religious candidate.