DES MOINES, Iowa, Jan. 28 (UPI) -- Candidates kicked off Thursday evening's GOP presidential debate cracking wise about Donald Trump, proving that the real-estate mogul dominates the stage even when he's not around.
Trump's counter-event to support veterans started at the same time as the GOP presidential debate, stealing some of the show on other prime-time news channels.
Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, assumed the front and center podium previously reserved for Trump. In his opening remarks, Cruz jokingly insulted everyone on the stage.
Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., tried multiple times to pivot of his answers toward the Islamic State, repeating many of his campaign catchphrases such as: "I believe the world is a better place when America is the strongest nation in the world."
At a certain point, he sidestepped a question on whether closing down mosques -- something he has proposed to combat terrorism -- would run afoul of the First Amendment. Rubio pointed to terror attacks in San Bernardino, Calif., and Philadelphia, Pa., before discussing his strategy to deal with the Islamic State.
More than one candidate on the stage had vowed to "rip up" the Iran nuclear deal. Now that sanctions have been lifted against Iran, the remaining provisions of the deal are restrictions on nuclear weapons development. Regardless, Rubio reiterated his vow to reverse the deal.
Ohio Gov. John Kasich disagreed, saying enforcing the deal was the only option and re-imposing sanctions if Iran stepped out of line.
Dr. Ben Carson, on how he would respond to anti-Muslim rhetoric, said, "We need to stop allowing political correctness to dictate our policies, it's going to kill us if we don't," he replied, to applause.
He went on to say that the United States should accept everyone, so long as they accept American values. "If not, they should stay where they are."
Also speaking on Islamophobia, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush brought up Trump almost immediately.
"I think it's important for us to be careful about the words we use," he said. "That's why I've been critical of Donald Trump, disparaging women, disparaging Muslims."
Bush said the first job of the next president was to address problems in the Veterans Administration. Bush called for giving veterans options, which appeared to mean privatizing the VA. While veterans issues were discussed at length in the undercard debate earlier -- likely because of Trump's veterans event -- candidates addressed them briefly on the prime time stage.
Rubio advocated for increased power for the National Security Agency, slamming the lapse of the Patriot Act, which ended certain surveillance programs.
"The bulk collection of your phone data has not stopped one terrorist attack," Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., responded, advocating for the use of warrants when investigating those suspected of terrorism.
Kasich addressed his previous statements that Silicon Valley could help the federal government create a "back door" to allow data collection on suspected terrorists.
"It's best not to talk about back doors and encryption," he said.
Kelly pressed him to answer whether or not such a "back door" could be exploited by hackers, but he demurred.
Meanwhile, candidates butted heads with moderators several times, demanding more time to speak. Cruz, arguing that he should have a right to respond to candidates who mentioned him in their answers, argued at length with Chris Wallace. When Cruz was next asked a question, he threatened to leave the stage if he was not allowed to respond to "attacks."
"I'm not leaving the stage no matter what you ask me," Rubio quipped.
Later, Megyn Kelly shut down Kasich to go to a commercial break.
"You're a good man, John Kasich," she joked.
Rubio and Bush traded blows on immigration after Rubio was asked whether or not he had reversed his position on creating a path to citizenship. Moderators showed several clips of Rubio opposing a path to citizenship, repeatedly calling it amnesty.
Rubio said his position was not a reversal. Bush said Rubio's failed 2013 "Gang of Eight" bill to create a path to legal status for undocumented immigrants constituted a reversal.
The two tussled over details before moderator Megyn Kelly shifted to Cruz, showing clips of him supporting a path to citizenship.
Cruz also went on the defensive, saying he opposed the "Gang of Eight" bill due to the provision that created a path to citizenship.
Paul accused Cruz of flip -lopping and being morally superior
"John Adams once said 'Facts are stubborn things,' the facts are simple," Cruz responded, saying he lead the effort to defeat the bill.
"This is the lie that Ted's campaign is built upon," Rubio shot back, accusing Rubio of saying anything to win an election.
Everyone on the stage continued to gang up on Cruz, except Christie.
"This is what makes the difference when you're a governor. You can change your mind," he said. "But when you're a governor, you have to admit it."
Moving on, Rubio called for modernization for the immigration system, saying the United States needed to move to a merit-based system.
Cruz was asked whether his lack of endorsements from Republican officeholders should concern party members who may be worried that if he wins the nomination, he could hurt GOP candidates down ticket.
"I am not the candidate of career politicians in Washington," Cruz said.
He called his campaign "grassroots" and said he was proud to have endorsements from those outside of Washington.
Asked what Christie would do to make government smaller, he responded quickly by saying he'd cut Planned Parenthood funding as he had in New Jersey. He doubled down by calling abortion "murder."
Paul, asked whether or not abortion should be a state's rights issue, advocated for the passage of a federal law to declare that life begins at conception, and called for the reversal of Roe v. Wade.