The top Republican presidential candidates at Thursday's debate.

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The Last Debate Before Voting Begins

Republican front-runner Donald Trump stays away from the last debate before the Iowa caucuses.

The top Republican candidates gathered Thursday night in Des Moines, Iowa, for their final debate before the first elections of the 2016 presidential race. The Iowa caucuses are this Monday, February 1. Caucuses are the way voters in some states choose major party nominees for president. During the caucuses, people in each major party gather in meetings across the state to discuss candidates and vote for their top choices.

This was the seventh Republican debate this election season. It was most notable for what it was missing: front-runner Donald Trump. He refused to show up. The billionaire real estate developer said one of the debate’s moderators, Megyn Kelly of Fox News, has been unfair to him in the past. Fox News says that Kelly has asked him fair questions.

IMMIGRATION ISSUES

Without Trump around, most of the attacks and tough questions fell on two other candidates: Senator Ted Cruz of Texas and Senator Marco Rubio of Florida. Opinion polls show that Cruz and Rubio are the most popular candidates after Trump. The attacks against Cruz and Rubio focused mostly on the issue of immigration.

Rubio said that Cruz’s campaign was built on lies about immigration. Just moments before, the moderators had played video clips to show that Cruz has changed his position on the issue. “The truth is, Ted, throughout this campaign you’ve been willing to say or do anything to get votes,” Rubio said.

But Rubio faced similar attacks. Rivals pointed out that, like Cruz, he once championed policies that would have made it easier for immigrants who have come to the U.S. illegally to stay. At one point, Kelly asked Rubio, “Haven’t you already proven you cannot be trusted on this issue?”

THE IMPACT OF TRUMP’S ABSENCE

Trump’s absence from the debate gave other candidates a break from arguing mostly with him. In previous debates, the billionaire had gone out of his way to attack former Florida Governor Jeb Bush. In this debate, Bush joked about their hostile relationship. “I kind of miss Donald Trump; he was a teddy bear to me,” Bush said.

Other candidates in this debate were former neurosurgeon Ben Carson, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, Ohio Governor John Kasich, and Kentucky Senator Rand Paul.

Instead of going to the debate, Trump attended an event across town that raised money for U.S. veterans. Because Trump was at that event, Fox’s media rivals—CNN, MSNBC, and C-SPAN—covered it live. Few journalists believed Trump lost ground by skipping the debate. “He was a big winner by not being there,” said political analyst Taegan Goddard.

Recent polls show that Trump is ahead of other Republicans in Iowa. One poll showed that Trump has 32 percent of support from likely Republican voters there. Cruz was next with 25 percent, and Rubio had 18 percent.

WHY IOWA AND NEW HAMPSHIRE MATTER

The next election contest after Iowa’s is in New Hampshire on February 9. That state holds what’s called a primary election, which is the way most states select party nominees. In a primary, voters go to the polls to cast secret ballots.

Candidates who do well in Iowa and New Hampshire can get a big boost in their poll numbers and can often raise more money from donors. Those who do poorly in Iowa and New Hampshire often drop out of the race.