Cruz plays defense in final debate before Iowa

HARI SREENIVASAN: From the Democratic battle for women's votes, to the Republican battle for the spotlight.

Our political director Lisa Desjardins reports now on the large GOP field and last night's debate here in Iowa.

DONALD TRUMP (R), Republican Presidential Candidate: I did something that was very risky. And I think it turned out great, because I'm on the front page of every paper. I'm getting more publicity.

LISA DESJARDINS: Donald Trump, today in New Hampshire, crowed about what happened last night in Des Moines.

DONALD TRUMP: This is an honor. This is a really — honor.

LISA DESJARDINS: He held his own rogue fund-raiser for veterans, claiming to raise at least $6 million, as just across town:

MEGYN KELLY, FOX News: Donald Trump has chosen not to attend.

LISA DESJARDINS: Seven other Republicans gathered to soak up the extra oxygen and try to move past Trump.

SEN. MARCO RUBIO (R-FL), Republican Presidential Candidate: Chris, let's begin by being clear what this campaign is about. It's not about Donald Trump. He's an entertaining guy. He's the greatest show on earth. This campaign is about the greatest country in the world.

LISA DESJARDINS: This debate drew fewer viewers than all but one GOP face-off this cycle, around 12.5 million people. But it kept up in quality and quantity of punches.

SEN. TED CRUZ (R-TX), Republican Presidential Candidate: Chris, I would note that the last four questions have been, Rand, please attack Ted. Marco, please attack Ted. Chris, please attack Ted. Jeb, please attack Ted.

LISA DESJARDINS: Ted Cruz, center stage in Trump's absence, tussled with the FOX News moderators early on.

SEN. TED CRUZ: If you guys ask one more mean question, I may have to leave the stage.

LISA DESJARDINS: But, before long, the Texas senator was on defense on immigration.

SEN. TED CRUZ: I don't want immigration reform to fail.

LISA DESJARDINS: Confronted by videotape of what he said about a 2013 immigration compromise in the Senate.

SEN. TED CRUZ: But, Megyn, the bill was 1,000 pages. I introduced a series of amendments, each designed to fix problems in the bill.

LISA DESJARDINS: But Cruz found no friends on stage. Senator Rand Paul rejected his colleague's words.

SEN. RAND PAUL (R-KY), Republican Presidential Candidate: And that's an authenticity problem, that everybody he knows is not as perfect as him, because we're all for amnesty. I was for legalization. I think, frankly, if you have border security, you can have legalization. So was Ted, but now he says it wasn't so. That's not true.

SEN. MARCO RUBIO: Never have and never will support any effort to grant blanket legalization amnesty.

LISA DESJARDINS: Marco Rubio, too, had to confront his immigration Achilles' heel. Jeb Bush reminded Republicans of Rubio's past.

FORMER GOV. JEB BUSH (R), Republican Presidential Candidate: I'm kind of confused because he was the sponsor of the Gang of Eight bill that did require a bunch of thresholds, but ultimately allowed for citizenship over an extended period of time. I mean, that's a fact. And he asked me to support that.

LISA DESJARDINS: Rubio shot back at Bush, his one-time mentor in Florida.

SEN. MARCO RUBIO: You wrote a book where you changed your position from a path of citizenship to a path of legalization. And the bottom line is this. We are not going to be able to do anything on this issue until we first bring illegal immigration under control.

LISA DESJARDINS: In Trump's absence, everyone had more time. Chris Christie presented himself as a no-nonsense governor, and hit a conservative chord when asked to cut one government function.

GOV. CHRIS CHRISTIE (R-NJ), Republican Presidential Candidate: How about one that I have done in New Jersey for the last six years? And that's get rid of Planned Parenthood funding from the United States of America.


LISA DESJARDINS: John Kasich aimed to be the smart, grounded voice, and took on topics others often avoid.

GOV. JOHN KASICH (R-OH), Republican Presidential Candidate: The time has come to stop ignoring the mentally ill in this country.

LISA DESJARDINS: And Ben Carson, as he does often, spoke broadly of freedom and specifically of the Constitution.

BEN CARSON (R), Republican Presidential Candidate: Do ordain and establish this Constitution of the United States of America. Folks, it's not too late.

LISA DESJARDINS: And it will be too late for some candidates soon. Iowans vote Monday.

For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Lisa Desjardins.