Donald Trump wasn’t physically on stage at Thursday’s Fox News Republican debate in Des Moines, Iowa — but his 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 Thursday’s 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, 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.”
“Donald Trump has chosen not to attend this evening’s presidential debate,” Kelly said to Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, Trump’s closest rival. “What message do that think that sends to the voters of Iowa?”
After thanking the people of Iowa for their hospitality, Cruz had some fun with Trump’s extensive record of Twitter insults. “Let me just say, I’m a maniac and everyone on this stage is stupid, fat, and ugly. And Ben, you’re a terrible surgeon,” he said, referring to renowned former neurosurgeon Ben Carson. “Now that we’ve gotten the Donald Trump portion out of the way …. ”
But it wasn’t out of the way. Kelly then asked Cruz about his changing message on Trump, whom the Texas senator regularly praised at the beginning of the campaign season but now criticizes as a member of the “establishment.”
“There is a difference between personal insults and attacks, between going into the mud with ad hominems and focusing on issues and substance,” said Cruz. The latter, he continued, is “fair game.”
Asked about this election being a battle for the soul of the Republican Party, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio also wasted no time in bringing up Trump.
“It’s not about Trump,” Rubio said. “He’s an entertaining guy, he’s the greatest show on earth. This campaign is about the greatest country in the world and a president who has systematically destroyed many of the things that made America special.”
Likely no candidate was as happy about a Trump-less debate Thursday than former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, who has frequently been the target of Trump’s most vicious attacks. He, too, acknowledged his missing foe.
“I kind of miss Donald Trump, he was a little teddy bear to me,” said Bush. “We always had such a loving relationship in these debates, and in between and the tweets. I kind of miss him. I wish he was here.”
This article originally appeared on MSNBC.com.