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Republicans Make Final Arguments Before Iowa Caucuses

Seven Republican presidential candidates squared off in the final debate before the Iowa caucuses in Des Moines, Iowa with one notable absence -- front-runner Donald Trump.

Taking the stage for the main event was Texas Sen. Ted Cruz; Florida Sen. Marco Rubio; retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson; former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush; New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie; Ohio Gov. John Kasich; and Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul.

Ted Cruz Tries His Best Trump Impression 1:06

Trump opted out of the debate because of an ongoing feud with host Fox News. He instead held his own Iowa event minutes away at the same time.

Earlier tonight, former HP CEO Carly Fiorina; former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee; former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum; and former Virginia Gov. Jim Gilmore participated in an undercard debate.

Check out our recap below for all the news and analysis from Thursday's debate:

RECAP: REPUBLICAN DEBATE

Andrew Rafferty

Closing statements

The final GOP debate before the Iowa caucuses is in the books. Here is an abridged of the closing statements from each of the candidates:

Rand Paul - I am the one true fiscal conservative

John Kasich - I'm an optimist because I've seen so many things get accomplished. And we can do it again.

Chris Christie - I've faced it, I've prosecuted terrorists...And as president, no one will keep the country safer than I will.

Jeb Bush - I will restore the military, and as our nominee, I will defeat Hillary Clinton.

Ben Carson - Carson recited the preamble of the U.S. Constitution.

Marco Rubio - Caucus for me because if I'm your nominee I will unite this party

Ted Cruz - Who do you know will kill the terrorists, repeal Obamacare and defend liberty? Please caucus for me Monday.

Leigh Ann Caldwell

Bush Hits Trump For Language

In response to a YouTube question, Bush said people running for president have to be considerate of what they say and how they say it.

"We're living in dangerous time and we have to realize our words have consequences," Bush said.

Leigh Ann Caldwell

Rand Paul on Abortion In The States

Paul, who said he thinks abortion should be a state issue, was asked if he would support a liberal state who takes a liberal stance on abortion.

He said he supports "a federal and a state approach."

"So the federal solution would be the life at conception act which is an act that would federalize the issue," he said.

He added: "If you actually had the court reverse Roe. V. wade it would become a state issue once again. I think it would be better the less abortions we have so the more states we have that made abortion illegal the better as far as trying to save and preserve lives."

Cruz Quizzed on Ethanol

Cruz has been challenged over his position on ethanol in Iowa because he has changed his position on the issue. Ethanol mandates are popular among farmers.

When asked about it tonight, he attempted to sound resolute, saying "I don't believe that Washington should be picking winners and losers, and I think there should be no mandates or no subsidies."

But in an effort to appease farmers, he said he would "tear down" the EPA's blend wall, which he says will greatly expand the use of ethanol.

Andrew Rafferty

Paul: Bill Clinton undercuts Hillary on women's rights

Rand Paul said he does not "blame" Hillary Clinton for her husband's past infidelity, but said it undercuts her role as a champion for women's rights.

Rand Paul: Bill Clinton's Past Is a Problem for Hillary 0:48

"I don't blame Hillary Clinton at all for this; I don't think she's responsible for his behavior," Paul said.

But Paul quickly added that a CEO would have been fired for that type of behavior with an intern.

"They would never be hired again. Fired. Never hired again. And probably shunned in their community," Paul went on. "And the thing is she can't be a champion of women's rights at the same time she's got this that is always lurking out there, this type of behavior. So it is difficult."

Carrie Dann

Trump Trumps on Twitter

Donald Trump might not be on stage, but he's still dominating when it comes to the conversation conducted in 140-characters or less.

About 90 minutes into the debate, Twitter released data showing that Trump had the largest share of conversation about candidates on the social media network during the course of the debate.

Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio, who have spent much of the debate in heated exchanges, came in a distant second and third place by Twitter's yardstick.

Andrew Rafferty

Candidates explain their faith in Iowa

Candidates used the Des Moines debate to tout their faith on Thursday, saying their religion has helped them govern.

"You should hope that our next president is influenced by their faith," Marco Rubio said.

Rubio, John Kasich, and Chris Christie each talked about the role faith has played in their life.

In Iowa, evangelical voters play a specifically important role in the GOP caucuses. In 2012, 57 percent of caucus goers were evangelical or born-again Christian.

Leigh Ann Caldwell

Christie Turns A Question on His Investigation

Christie was asked why people should trust him because of problems he's faced in New Jersey. He said he didn't do anything wrong in BridgeGate but what he did do is "fire the people who were responsible," calling that leadership.

He says he's the best Republican to go up against Clinton because a prosecutor is needed in the Oval Office to ensure that she is prosecuted.

"The days for the Clinton's in public housing are over," Christie said.

Andrew Rafferty

Rubio says Cruz 'willing to say or do anything to get votes'

The testiest exchange of the night so far took place over immigration - specifically an amendment Ted Cruz offered in 2013 that would have allowed some undocumented immigrants a chance to earn legal status.

Cruz has defended the amendment as a "poison pill" that killed comprehensive immigration reform that included a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants. But a video montage showed at the debate included a number of clips during that time in which the Texas senator defended his amendment as the only way the legislation could pass.

Paul, Rubio Bash Cruz on Immigration 1:34

"I was there and I saw the debate," Rand Paul said. "He can't have it both ways."

Paul said Cruz is a hypocrite and "the king of saying, 'Oh you're for amnesty.'"

Rubio said Cruz has "been willing to say or do anything to get votes."

Cruz, for his part, name conservative favorites Jeff Sessions, Steve King and Rush Limbaugh, who he says were with him on immigration at the time.

Leigh Ann Caldwell

Jeb Finds His Stride

A YouTube questioner asks if this country is welcoming to immigrants.

Bush, who has struggled to find his voice in this cycle, showed a rare moment of passion when he said the U.S. needs to be a welcoming nation for people who come here to work.

Leigh Ann Caldwell

Rubio's Pre-Gang of 8 Position on Immigration

Rubio, who has been plagued by his past on immigration this entire presidential campaign, was asked about his position on immigration BEFORE his role in the Gang of Eight bill when he said he would never support "amnesty."

Rubio said you have to take his position in the context, saying it was in 2009 and 2010 after the Senate failed to pass comprehensive immigration plan.

Then Jeb Bush, who also supports a path to legalization, entered the debate.

Bush said, "I supported him because I think people, when you're elected, you need to do things and he led the charge to finally fix this immigration problem that has existed now for as Marco says for 30 years. And then he cut and run because it wasn't popular amongst conservatives, I guess."

Then Rubio responded: "It's interesting that Jeb mentions the book. That is the book where you changed your position on immigration. Because you used to support a path to citizenship."

Bush: "So did you Marco."

Rubio: "You you wrote a book where you changed your position from a path to citizenship to a path to legalization."

Here's a primer on Rubio's past on immigration, dating back to his time in the Florida House of Representatives.

Andrew Rafferty

Kasich on Flint water crisis: You have to be on top of it

John Kasich declined to criticize Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder over the Flint water crisis, saying as a leader "you have to be on top of it right away."

Kasich Addresses Flint Water Crisis During Debate 0:56

On the campaign trail, Republicans have been hesitant to speak out against the GOP governor. Democrats, however, have been forceful in condemning leaders in Flint for allowing citizens to drink and bath in water that may have been exposed to lead.

Bernie Sanders has called for Snyder's resignation.

Andrew Rafferty

Bush promises more firings at the VA

Jeb Bush promised to fire more administrators at the Department of Veterans Affairs and said he would more closely police organizations like the Wounded Warriors.

"I will make sure we fire the sheer incompetence," Bush said.

VA head Eric Shinseki and some other officials stepped down after it was revealed veterans had died while awaiting care. But, Bush said, it hasn't been enough.

Bush said "of course" groups like the Wounded Warriors should be more closely monitored by the government after reports of lavish spending.

Leigh Ann Caldwell

Use of Technology To Help Minority Communities

In response to a question on YouTube about the use of technology to help communities like Ferguson. Rand Paul was the only one to answer the question.

He outlined the problem, including that too many African American are in prison. He reminded the audience that he's been working in criminal justice reform - an issue that he heavily touted in 2014 and early 2015 in the early stages of gearing up for a presidential run.

Leigh Ann Caldwell

Profiling Muslims

A discussion on profiling Muslims turned into a discussion about border security because Marco Rubio was involved.

Rand Paul said to Rubio: "You can't be in favor of defending us against radical islam if you're not in favor of border security," noting that Rubio voted against one of his border security amendments.

Rubio says he does support border security but "Rand's amendment was not the right way to do it."

That was an example of why it's easy to draw broad conclusions about a senators nuanced record.

But Rubio turns again to his tough talk about national security, saying he's been clear that if we don't know who you are or why you're trying to come here, "You're not going to get in."

The conversation rolls back around to racial profiling of Muslims.

Christie says you can be vigilante without profiling."

"You can do it on the facts," he said. "you see something that's suspicious, you call law enforcement and let law enforcement make those decisions."

Andrew Rafferty

'Please attack Ted'

Ted Cruz feels like Fox News moderators are targeting him tonight, saying the questions have been an invitation for rival candidates to "attack Ted."

"If you ask one more mean question, I may have to leave the stage," Cruz said, a jab directed at Trump.

Cruz Criticizes Questions at Debate 0:28

On a more serious note, Cruz complained that moderators were not focusing on policy, but rather trying get candidates to take pot shots at each other -- specifically at him.

"This is a debate," Fox News' Chris Wallace said.

"Don't worry, I'm not leaving the stage no matter what you ask me," Marco Rubio said.

Leigh Ann Caldwell

Debate Sans Trump Update

Other than the two jokes about Donald Trump at the beginning of the debate, the dynamics of the debate is much different, much more serious and almost a sense of relief among the candidates that Trump isn't there.

Here's Chuck Todd's take:

Here's NBC's Ali Vitali's insight from the Trump event:

And this by NBC's Kelly O'Donnell:

Don't miss this story on giving to veterans by the Donald J. Trump Foundation

Scenes From Down the Street

Trump's rally kicked off with a boisterous address by the viral YouTube sister duo, Diamond and Silk.

The pair spoke highly of Trump and slammed the veterans groups who have criticized Trump's decision to boycott the Republican debate and host a special event advertised to be to the benefit of veterans

"What I want to tell these groups is it's not about you who owns these groups, it's about our veterans," Diamond said. "When the throw you a life line it don't matter where the lifeline's coming as long as it's coming!"

It's a far different tone from the way Sen. Ted Cruz kicked off a similarly-sized rally yesterday with Rep. Louie Gohmert's talk of botched abortions and evangelical leaders condemnations of Donald Trump, and with classic rock pumping up the crowd while they waited for Trump to speak, it was also a lot more entertaining.

Though the event purports to support veterans, it's not exactly clear how, though Trump has said he'd donate some of his own fortune and put up a link online fundraising for his own foundation and saying it would go to veterans charities.

"I have no idea [how it supports veterans] but my wife just texted me and asked me the same question," a retired veteran Robert Burd, 71, told MSNBC. "I have a feeling that he has a plan, he hasn't exposed it to everybody yet."

Across the board, attendees here are die-hard Trump supporters.

Paul Bartosz, plant manager in ethanol industry, said he likes Trump's stance on "everything" and believes his boycott of the Fox News debate is about fighting for fair coverage when he's president.

Andrew Rafferty

Carson touts outsider status

Though he has no political experience, Ben Carson said he's gotten more 2 a.m. phones than the rest of his GOP rivals combined.

Carson Touts 'Life and Death' Experience at Debate 0:48

The former neurosurgeon said his apolitical background is an asset. And with Donald Trump absent, Carson is the only candidate without a political background on stage in the primetime debate.

"You're not going to hear a lot of polished political speech from me," Carson said to applause. "But you will hear the truth."

Leigh Ann Caldwell

Rand Paul: I'm Going to Win The Liberty Vote in Iowa

Rand Paul says he's going to win "the liberty vote" because Cruz skipped the vote to audit the Federal Reserve and because Rubio voted in favor of the government's bulk collection of data.

Cruz's response on his missed vote: "It didnt' have the votes to pass and I had commitments to be at a town hall in New Hampshire."

Rubio's response: We're going to keep this country safe unlike President Barack Obama.

Paul retorts: "You don't have to give up your liberty for a false sense of security."