DES MOINES, IOWA | Donald Trump wasn’t on the stage, but he was still the dominant figure in Iowa on Thursday night as the rest of the Republican presidential field debated on Fox News and the billionaire businessman boycotted, instead drawing thousands of people to an event across town raising money for veterans.
With just days to go before Iowa voters kick off the primary season, the candidates pleaded for Iowa to give them another look and keep Mr. Trump from being their champion against the likely Democratic nominee, Hillary Clinton.
But it was Mr. Trump and his agenda that overshadowed the debate — particularly his insistence that the country deport illegal immigrants, not grant them legal status.
Under stiff questioning from Megyn Kelly of Fox News, which hosted the debate, Sen. Ted Cruz and Sen. Marco Rubio were forced to defend what appeared to be flip-flops on their stances on the thorny issue.
She confronted Mr. Rubio with videos of himself in 2009 and 2010 insisting he would oppose “blanket amnesty” — which he defined at the time as a path to citizenship — and then asked him to square that with his position in 2013, when he was a key author of a bill to offer such a path.
“If you look at the quote — and it’s very specific — and it says blanket amnesty, and I do not support blanket amnesty, I do not support amnesty,” Mr. Rubio explained.
Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush said that represented a flip-flop between 2009 and 2013, and he accused Mr. Rubio of changing yet again in this current campaign and distancing himself from the very bill he wrote.
“He cut and run because it wasn’t popular amongst conservatives,” Mr. Bush said.
Mr. Cruz, meanwhile, struggled to explain his own amendment during that 2013 debate that would have allowed illegal immigrants to gain legal status, though it would have stopped their special path to citizenship.
“I introduced a series of amendments, each designed to fix a problem in the bill,” he said.
Mr. Rubio pounced, saying Mr. Cruz was trying to bamboozle voters.
“This is the lie Ted’s campaign is built on,” Mr. Rubio said. “The truth is, Ted, throughout this campaign you’ve been willing to say or do anything to get votes.”
The seventh debate of the primary season came with candidates increasingly desperate to carve space out for themselves — and having a grand opportunity for the first time without Mr. Trump on stage.
Mr. Cruz, running second in polling and at the center of the stage for the first time in the campaign, seemed to bristle at the attention showered on him.
“The last four questions have been Rand, please attack Ted, Marco, please attack Ted, Chris please attack Ted, Jeb, please attack Ted,” he said, then quipped, “If you guys ask one more mean question, I may have to leave the stage.”
Mr. Bush said he was a little sad to see Mr. Trump not show up, because it meant he lost his chief target.
“I kind of miss Donald Trump. He was a little teddy bear to me,” Mr. Bush said.
Even without Mr. Trump on stage, the candidates were arguing over his anti-establishment rhetoric and whether it was the right approach for Republicans heading into the November election.
Mr. Bush said he wouldn’t run away from the label of establishment, which he has earned because of his family, including two former presidents.
“I am in the establishment because my dad, the greatest man alive, was the president of the United States, and my brother, who I adore as well, is a fantastic brother, was president, fine I will take it, and I guess I am part of the establishment because Barbara Bush is my mom. I will take that too,” he said. “But this election is not about our pedigree; this is an election about people that are really hurting and we a leader who will fix things and have a proven record to do it.”
Also on stage were Ohio Gov. John Kasich, retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson, Sen. Rand Paul and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie.
Across town, Mr. Trump made good on his boycott threat by hosting an event at Drake University that he said was raising money for veterans — and drawing attention away from the debate, which was aired exclusively on Fox News Channel, while the other cable news networks covered his rally.
In an interview with CNN just ahead of his event, he said Fox News called him, apologized and asked him to reconsider and appear at the debate. He wouldn’t say who apologized but that he might have considered it if he hadn’t already organized his veterans fundraiser.
He also said voters will reward him for his bold decision to refuse to debate.
“I took on the establishment,” he told CNN.
A huge crowd showed up for the event, with Trump fans streaming in from out of state, leaving a line stretching for blocks to enter the Sheslow Auditorium. The crowd easily exceeded the seating capacity of the auditorium, and the Trump campaign prepared to accommodate the overflow with a screen to telecast the event outside.
The competing events came as the polling in Iowa was shifting and Mr. Trump was back on top, taking the lead from Mr. Cruz, who is in second place.
Carl Raue, 43, a retired Air Force technical sergeant, drove about 2½ hours from his home in North Omaha, Nebraska, and said he didn’t feel that Mr. Trump was exploiting veterans as some veterans groups have charged.
“I don’t think that’s what we have here,” he said. “He knows veterans have been screwed over for a while now.”
He also sided with Mr. Trump in the showdown with Fox News.
“I would probably have done the same thing,” said Mr. Raue, who got into the event in an expedited line for veterans.
The events competed for attention as polling in Iowa was shifting and Mr. Trump was back on top, having taking the lead from Mr. Cruz, who is in second place. Mr. Rubio has firmly entrenched himself in third place.
After Iowa’s caucuses on Monday, attention will shift to New Hampshire, which holds the first primary on Feb. 9. Mr. Trump has maintained a commanding lead there for most of the campaign, with Mr. Cruz recently surging into second place and Mr. Kasich a surprising third, according to the RealClearPolitics.com average of polls. Mr. Rubio has been bumped down to fourth or fifth place, vying with Mr. Bush.
In Thursday’s undercard debate, aired earlier in the evening, Fox News was again a target, along with the rest of what the four lower-tier candidates called a media cabal designed to keep them from being seen by the voters.
“This is what the media has been doing over the last year in trying to segregate and take Iowans out of the process,” said former Sen. Rick Santorum, the winner of the caucuses in 2012, as he pleaded with Iowans to upset the prognosticators and deliver him another win.
Businesswoman Carly Fiorina at one point blasted moderator Martha MacCallum for asking Mr. Santorum why he missed last week’s pro-life March for Life in Washington. Mr. Santorum said he has marched for two decades, but this year stayed in Iowa to campaign, afraid he otherwise would have been trapped in Washington by a snowstorm — and Mrs. Fiorina told Ms. MacCallum that the question itself was unfair.
“It is outrageous, frankly, that Fox News, and you, would question the pro-life credentials of Rick Santorum. That is outrageous,” Mrs. Fiorina said.
Mr. Santorum and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee are the last two winners of the Iowa caucuses, but they have struggled to gain traction this year. Both of them blamed the press for denying them attention in the crowded field.
Mr. Huckabee said he set a caucus record for most votes in 2008 and asked Iowa voters to give him another boost.
“You trusted me, you believed I had your best interests at heart,” he said.
Making a presidential debate stage for the first time was former Virginia Gov. James S. Gilmore III, who barely registers in the polls and who found himself having to explain why, until this week, he hadn’t set foot in Iowa.
“This is not the place where I’m choosing to begin my campaign,” Mr. Gilmore said.
Mr. Santorum and Mr. Huckabee both said they planned to be with Mr. Trump at his veterans event later in the night, but Mr. Gilmore said as the son of a blue-collar meat-cutter, he was “not about to go across town tonight and hold the coat of some billionaire.”
⦁ Seth McLaughlin contributed to this report.