UPDATE: 11:00 p.m. EST — The candidates delivered their closing remarks Thursday after the final Republican debate before the Iowa caucuses Monday and they all (or at least most of them) seemed to agree on a couple of things: the mess in Washington, D.C., needs to be cleaned up and the U.S. needs a strong military. As for Twitter, it seemed to agree once again on something else: retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson often seems like he’s sleeping when he’s talking.

To be fair, Carson didn’t get much chance to talk, but he did get a late question in the debate to make one last plea for the American people’s support and, of course, he got to deliver his final statement.
































UPDATE: 10:30 p.m. EST — Twitter has declared debate moderator Megyn Kelly the winner of the event for her pointed questioning of Sens. Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio. Also, for her new hairstyle.
















UPDATE: 10:06 p.m. EST —With one hour down and one more to go, the Republican candidates have been engaged in a debate on a range of issues from Obamacare to Puerto Rico’s debt crisis and Flint, Michigan’s water crisis. The debate was subdued relative to previous debates because businessman Donald Trump decided to boycott the event.

Still, moderators promised something that the candidates had never seen before the commercial break. After that break, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush exchanged barbs over their positions on immigration reform, both saying that the other had favored a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants in the past.






























UPDATE: 9:50 p.m. EST —Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul got the chance Thursday night to talk about one of the causes he has championed while in the Senate: criminal justice reform. Following a question from a YouTube star about police body cameras, Paul followed up with comments about corruption in Ferguson, Missouri, where an 18-year-old unarmed black man was gunned down by police in 2014.

The killing of that man, Michael Brown, sparked riots in the city and widespread media attention. Since then, the killings of unarmed black men has repeatedly been the focus of media reports in the country and has sparked a national movement, Black Lives Matter, to keep pressure on lawmakers to address the issue.























UPDATE: 9:38 p.m. EST — Fox News moderators continued to challenge candidates on the debate stage Thursday to criticize businessman Donald Trump, the GOP front-runner who decided to skip the contest and hold his own rally during the event. Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, who is running neck and neck with Trump in Iowa polls, shot back at the moderators and threatened to leave the stage should they ask another question about Trump. Twitter subsequently mocked Cruz while Florida Sen. Marco Rubio vowed not to leave the stage no matter what question was asked.
























UPDATE: 9:28 p.m. EST —As the final GOP debate before the Iowa caucuses Monday went into break, journalists on Twitter seemed more enthralled with the opposing event Donald Trump was holding nearby in Iowa. Still, those engaged in the debate noted that Texas Sen. Ted Cruz and Florida Sen. Marco Rubio were having strong starts to their night.

One note of interest: The GOP debate was being broadcast exclusively on Fox News Channel, but MSNBC and CNN were both broadcasting Trump’s event as counter-programming.















UPDATE: 9:20 p.m. EST — The candidates began the Republican debate Thursday by hitting on several issues of importance to the 2016 race, from the Federal Reserve to government surveillance and the Islamic State group. The tone, without businessman Donald Trump, was notably respectful of one another as the candidates tried to differentiate themselves from one another.

Meanwhile, Trump began his rally nearby to benefit veterans.

















UPDATE: 9:08  p.m. EST — The top Republican contenders took to the debate stage in Des Moines, Iowa, shortly after 9 p.m. for their final chance to make their case to voters before caucuses Monday evening. The front-runner of the party, businessman Donald Trump, was notably absent from the stage after he refused to join the debate unless moderator Megyn Kelly was removed from the event.

Straight off the bat, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, who has been in a bitter battle with Trump in the polls recently, was asked about Trump’s absence. He took the opportunity to mock him.

“First of all, I’m a maniac, and everybody on this stage is stupid, fat and ugly,” he said, mimicking Trump’s style of insults. He then said that the Trump portion of the debate was finished for the evening and that the candidates could then focus on the issues.

The audience, which the moderators said contained 1,600 people, seemed receptive to his answer.











UPDATE: 8:25 p.m. EST — After America's least favorite presidential candidates pleaded for votes during an undercard debate hosted by Fox, social media users prepared for the main event starting at 9 p.m. and featuring the top-polling candidates with — what else? — Twitter memes. Here are some of the top quotes, moments and images that stood out minutes before the main debate was to start:







Original story:

The top Republican presidential candidates were scheduled to take to the debate stage Thursday in Des Moines, Iowa, for the final time before voters in the state caucus Monday to choose their champions. That is, all of the top contenders save for the one leading in the polls: businessman Donald Trump.

Though the race has become markedly heated recently with Texas Sen. Ted Cruz pulling up close to Trump in Iowa polls, the real estate mogul sparked a firestorm this week by refusing his central spot in Fox News and Google’s primetime debate showdown at 9 p.m. EST, citing concern that the moderators won't treat him fairly. Instead, Cruz will be joined onstage by Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, Ohio Gov. John Kasich and Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul. An undercard debate is scheduled for 7 p.m. EST. 

The main debate will give the other candidates a chance to display differences among themselves without the shadow of Trump’s bombastic presence.

The fight between Rubio, who is third in Iowa, and Cruz could get interesting as the two first-term senators look to prove that they are the more worthy suitor for voters. Though they are both competing for similar demographics, they present differing images. Cruz is a candidate who has largely snubbed the establishment Republican Party. Rubio is the candidate who is conservative but seemingly well-liked by that establishment.

Behind those two will be Carson — who has fallen from a high point last year when he surged in the polls — and then the trio of governors who are toting their executive experience as reasons to choose them to lead the country. Paul, the libertarian, recently made it back onto the main debate stage after being relegated to the undercard debate the last time around.

As for Thursday's undercard debate, four candidates will take the stage. Those candidates are former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum and former Virginia Gov. Jim Gilmore.

But, while Trump won't be on the debate stage, he's not staying silent. His campaign plans to hold its own televised event in Iowa Thursday night to raise money for veterans. Santorum and Huckabee have signaled they plan on joining him there after the undercard event.

507341446 Republican presidential candidates debate Jan. 28, 2016, in Des Moines, Iowa. Photo: Scott Olson Getty Images

Agop11 Republican presidential candidates take the stage Jan. 28, 2016, at the Iowa Events Center in Des Moines, Iowa. From left are Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey, Ben Carson, Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and Ohio Gov. John Kasich. Photo: Alex Wong/Getty Images