NEW YORK - Republican presidential front-runner Donald Trump stuck to his pledge and held a rival event benefiting war veterans as his party rivals debates issues ahead of the party's first primary test: The Feb. 1 Iowa caucus.

Despite suggestions that Trump might appear in the end, he went ahead with his event in Des Moines about three miles away, where he was joined by former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee and former Senator Rick Santorum fresh from their appearance at the earlier “undercard” debate. 

That left the seven candidates on the main stage trying to outdo each other while also seeking to land some punches on the main rival: the absent Trump. Trump hastily arranged the event, which he said raised $6 million, after withdrawing from the debate. "I didn't want to be here, I have to be honest," Trump said at the top of the event. "When you're treated badly you have to stick up for your rights," he said.

"They (Fox News) called a few minutes ago," he said. "By now they're all tuned in," he said of the other networks shifting from the debate. "We have more cameras than they do by quite a bit." The packed theater at Drake University was dotted with veteran T-shirts, leather jackets and both older and younger men in wheelchairs in the audience.

Trump acknowledged the move was a political gamble just days before Iowans caucus. "Who the hell cares," said Trump, who gave $1 million and said the funds raised are worth it.Trump was briefly interrupted by protesters, who were quickly drown out by supporters chanting "USA." "My whole life I've been greedy greedy greedy," said Trump. "But now I want to be greedy for the United States."

The Republican front-runner was taking a big gamble by declining to participate in the debate. If one of his rivals - especially Senator Ted Cruz - had hit a few pitches out of the park, Trump’s absence could have seemed like an act of gross political negligence.

That didn’t happen. Cruz offered an indifferent performance. Florida Senator Marco Rubio did better overall but struggled in one of the debate’s most memorable moments a prolonged exchange over immigration reform. In a more general sense, too, the debate was simply less compelling without Trump. 

Trump’s absence was mentioned repeatedly, with former Florida Governor Jeb Bush speaking out most forcefully against him. Trump’s celebrity and pugnacity had turned previous debates into widely watched spectacles that frequently descended into shouting matches, dueling insults and, in Trump’s case, frequent mockery of his rivals as listless, flailing and even ugly.

Megyn Kelly, the Fox News talk-show host whose participation on Thursday night was Trump’s reason for skipping the event, began the questioning by noting “the elephant not in the room” and lobbed a softball question to Cruz about the missing Trump. It gave him a prime opportunity at the top of the debate, when the most viewers were watching, to speak directly to Iowans with the caucuses nearly at hand. He portrayed Trump as an unserious insult artist not fit for high office.

“I’m a maniac, and everyone on this stage is stupid, fat and ugly and Ben (Carson), you’re a terrible surgeon,” Cruz said, recalling some of Trump’s gibes, including his suggestion that Carson, a renowned neurosurgeon, had been a mediocre physician. “Now that we’ve gotten the Donald Trump portion out of the way,” Cruz continued, before being interrupted by laughter and applause, “I want to thank everyone here for showing the men and women of Iowa the respect to show up.”

Senator Rubio didn’t have any clear-cut breakout moment but he had a better night than Cruz, which is strategically important for him. Rubio’s appeal is rooted in his perceived strength as a general election candidate, and he made sure to target Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton and President Barack Obama frequently. 

He got in some jabs at Cruz that scored points, even if none of them were knockouts. On national security, for example, he said, "the only budget that Ted has ever voted for is a budget that Rand Paul sponsored that brags about cutting defense spending." 

On another occasion, after Cruz quibbled with moderators and then awkwardly joked that he would leave the stage if they continued with “mean” questions, Rubio said, “Don’t worry, I’m not leaving the stage no matter what you ask me.” Rubio’s strong night came with a big asterisk, however. His efforts to defend himself on his key vulnerability his past support for a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants were far from sure-footed.

He came off badly against former Florida Governor Jeb Bush in particular.

 Bush supporters must rue the fact that it’s taken him so long to deliver on the debate stage. The former Florida governor has been on an upswing since his stumbling early showings, and he was more vigorous and relaxed than ever before on Thursday evening. Bush still has his wonky moments - his argument that fiscally ailing Puerto Rico needs to undergo structural reform was not exactly red meat. But his central allegation against Rubio’s approach to immigration reform - “you shouldn’t cut and run” - hit the mark. When Rubio sought to counter by saying that the former Florida governor had changed his position on the issue, a smiling Bush responded, "So did you." It was his single best moment.