Why you should care

Because the past two presidents won this battleground state — and the next one might too.

It was a double bill of high-octane political theater in Iowa last night — with one show featuring the bickering you might expect from a reality series, and, as OZY discovered from within a packed auditorium just a few miles away, the other boasting stars from actual reality programming.

Only seven candidates remained at the most important debate for the Republican party so far, hosted by Fox News and Google just days before the country’s first caucus. Many touted their plans for combating both ISIS and domestic terrorism, as well as repealing Obamacare, in what’s turned out to be an icy battleground where the most popular candidates are expected to boost their odds of getting into the Oval Office.

But nearby, at Drake University, GOP front-runner Donald Trump hijacked some of the limelight with his own counter programming, which largely skipped his signature jabs at opponents and touched instead on how he had been “treated badly” in a past Fox News debate before focusing on the work of military veterans — and the $6 million he helped raise for some of them. Like him or not, nobody knows pageantry like the Donald, who still managed to court coverage from TV news channels with warm-up acts that included a past star from The Apprentice and YouTube personalities who’ve become famous for their unbridled support of the billionaire businessman.

Carly Fiorina ditched her gloves when she quipped that Hillary Clinton was “more qualified for the big house” than the White House.

While Trump’s decision to drop out of last night’s debate could have been seen by some as emotionally rash, it was also a strategic move that left Ted Cruz — the second-strongest candidate in the polls — under attack by the rest of their Republican rivals. Indeed, at the Iowa Events Center, Cruz lived up to his reputation as a fierce debater, though, following weeks where his favorability ratings among Republicans and right-wingers have slipped, he also showed certain weaknesses. After starting out strong, by imitating Trump and later fighting back at Marco Rubio (who claimed Cruz would say or do “anything” to win an election), he got shot down when trying to command more time on the mic and jeered by audience members for accusing moderators of setting up questions aimed at inciting rival barbs.

Meanwhile, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie defended his right to change positions on policy issues, and Rubio and Jeb Bush sparred on their past stances on illegal immigration. Once considered Rubio’s mentor, the former Florida governor said Rubio had “cut and run” after previously sponsoring major immigration overhaul because it wasn’t popular anymore. Ben Carson, the retired neurosurgeon, tried to highlight which approach he’d take to tackle foreign policy challenges — something critics have previously pointed out as one of his major weaknesses — but mostly remained shut out of the debate.

Earlier in the evening, only several stragglers were left vying for relevancy at the undercard debate, including Jim Gilmore (who?) and Carly Fiorina, who ditched her gloves when she compared rival Hillary Clinton to Mexican jailbird El Chapo and quipped that Clinton was “more qualified for the big house” than the White House. Rick Santorum also slammed Trump before defending his decision to join the Republican front-runner, along with fellow undercarder Mike Huckabee, right after the debate at the Donald’s fete. (If that’s not an early endorsement, what is?)

Indeed, Trump continued to command attention last night, with some surprises. Following a whirlwind day of punchy press appearances, fiery tweets and kicking up the typical media frenzy many have come to expect from him, the 69-year-old gave a speech and ceded the stage fairly quickly afterward to Santorum and Huckabee, who briefly talked about their support for U.S. troops. But that didn’t stop Trump from getting in the night’s final words: “We are a country that doesn’t win anymore,” he said. “We are going to win — so much.”

Neil Parmar contributed reporting.

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The route to the White House: news, stories and analysis from on and off the presidential campaign trail.