With Donald Trump absent from Thursday's Republican presidential debate, some GOP candidates capitalized on the chance to distinguish themselves on the Des Moines, Iowa, debate stage. Florida Sen. Marco Rubio filled the hole left by the businessman's characteristic bombast, and instead commanded the stage with powerful rhetoric about how to defeat extremist groups and side-stepping attacks.

The Los Angeles Times praised Rubio for his tough stance on foreign policy and confidence. "Florida Sen. Marco Rubio cast his fellow senators as weak in the fight against Islamic State, as several candidates jostled to gain an edge on foreign policy during Thursday's debate," the Times wrote, adding: "Tough rhetoric was abundant, with Rubio repeatedly raising his voice and jabbing his finger in the air as he implied that rough interrogations were necessary."

As second in the polls, Texas Sen. Cruz was looking for a win in Trump's absence, but some pundits criticized his performance. "Ted Cruz’s plan to win this debate is evidently to turn into a plungingly less humorous version of Donald Trump with at least twice the peevishness," the Guardian wrote. "He has (surprise!) narcissistically decided that all questions are being asked with the aim of giving other candidates ammunition to 'go after' Ted Cruz, so he is going to litigate the conduct of the debate with the moderators."




The top-tier GOP debate also featured retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, Ohio Gov. John Kasich and Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul. Fox News anchors Chris Wallace, Megyn Kelly and Bret Baier moderated the debate. 

Trump refused to attend the last Republican primary debate ahead of Monday's Iowa caucuses in favor of holding a fundraiser for veterans -- a decision that was prompted by what he said was Kelly's unfair treatment of him at the first GOP debate. Kelly was again tapped to question the candidates at the Fox News-Google debate Thursday evening. 

But even though there was no podium for Trump, he still made his way into the debate as candidates hurled insults at the GOP front-runner throughout the night. "I kind of miss Donald Trump," Bush said as the night kicked off.

Some said the businessman won the debate due to the attention given to his fundraiser. A Time poll declared Trump the winner with around 49 percent of the vote "even though he skipped it." Another poll by Drudge Report also showed him as the winner with 51 percent of the vote.

Other online polls offered different conclusions. A poll published by the National Republican Senatorial Committee showed Paul winning the debate with around 43 percent of support. Before the debate, Paul had predicted that Trump's absence would be in his favor. 

"I think we'll actually have the best debate that we've had," Paul told the HIll Wednesday before the debate.

Of the four candidates at the undecard debate, Google users chose former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina as the winner of the earlier forum with 62 percent of the vote. Fiorina was joined by former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum and former Virginia Gov. Jim Gilmore at the so-called undercard debate held before the prime-time event.



As far as Democratic candidate's Hillary Clinton's take, everyone went home a loser. "It's hard to declare a "winner" in the #GOPDebate when every candidate is trying to move our country backward," she tweeted. 


Arubio1 Sen. Marco Rubio, a Republican from Florida and 2016 presidential candidate, speaks during Thursday's Republican presidential candidate debate in Des Moines, Iowa, Jan. 28, 2016. Photo: Daniel Acker/Bloomberg via Getty Images