The final debate leading up to the Iowa Caucus took place on Thursday night, and though Donald Trump chose to sit out the seventh Republican debate, the event was certainly not without fireworks. Highlights ranged from presidential hopeful Marco Rubio truly hitting his stride to Ted Cruz threatening to leave the stage altogether. Candidates shined in their own unique ways on a Trump-less stage that appeared to offer more breathing room for all who participated. Following along was The Washington Post's Chris Cillizza, whose impressive output of memes was the perfect summary of the GOP debate.
Cillizza runs "The Fix," a political section of WaPo that has diligently documented every Republican and Democratic debate with transcripts and analysis. His takeaways ultimately amounted to a winners and losers post in which the journalist picked Rand Paul and Jeb Bush as the debate winners while also highlighting the prowess of moderator Megyn Kelly along with the impressive footage of candidate statements that directly highlighted Kelly and her fellow moderators' questions. As a bit of a teaser, he released a series of images featuring nearly every candidate — Donald Trump included — and that summed up their debate performance as well as the pivotal moments that proved to be make or break.
Cillizza's winning candidate proved to have the most meme-worthy fodder. Between his awkward comments comparing Trump to a teddy bear and his exchange with YouTube superstar Dulce Candy, the former Florida governor cemented himself as the candidate with the most rapid-fire soundbites. Sometimes that's all it takes to outshine your fellow candidates, it seems. Finally addressing his political roots in a way that was surprisingly less divisive than how many on the right view those in politics made for a particular highlight.
Florida Sen. Marco Rubio aimed to be a beacon of light in a party that has seen massive in-fighting and appeared listless leading into the Iowa Caucus. His ferocity when asked about combating ISIS as well as pressing foreign policy issues is certainly one of the biggest takeaways from Rubio's performance.
After refusing to appear at the sixth GOP debate, Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul returned as a force to be reckoned with. Paul's reasoning for missing the previous event was due to the fact that he'd been relegated to the undercard. His fans nonetheless mounted a brief "Rand" chant during the main event. Once again, supporters of Paul were out in full force as the candidate returned to the main debate on Thursday night. Stacked indeed.
Though Trump never even entered the Iowa Events Center, he remained a looming presence throughout the debate. Fellow candidates Mike Huckabee and Rick Santorum joined Trump at his rally elsewhere in Des Moines, the proceeds of which would benefit wounded veterans returning from combat. The above quips reflect Trump's reasoning for not even showing up in the first place: that Fox News had used him as a ratings grab, treated him unfairly, and would thus be longing for the return of the Donald throughout the event.
Once again, the loser of the GOP debate proved to be Ben Carson. The former neurosurgeon was missing in action for the most part and, at his best, was nearly incoherent in his rhetoric. Carson chose to end the debate on a puzzling low note. Rather than conclude with a powerful final statement he instead recited the preamble to the Constitution, inviting viewers to imagine the founding fathers in some type of framers guided meditation exercise that seriously missed the mark.
If Chris Christie wasn't touching upon his experience as the governor of New Jersey during the tragic Sept. 11 attacks, he was railing against Hillary Clinton with as much ire as he could muster on the debate stage. He repeatedly vowed to go after the Democratic front-runner, stating that he'd prosecute her for her ongoing email scandal. Clinton was on Christie's mind like a high schooler writing down the name of their crush ad infinitum.
Ohio Gov. John Kasich had some rather puzzling things to say about foreign policy, citing a Belgian diplomat that he'd talked with being incredibly surprised that the country had a more robust military presence in the streets following the attacks in Paris. Kasich took that piece of information as grounds to base his entire approach to the world on as well as his foreign policy strategy.