SIMI VALLEY, Calif. — The Princeton debate champion largely stayed out of this one.
Much like his posture in the previous August debate, U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz avoided the verbal combat that took place among Republican candidates on the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library debate stage on Wednesday night.
The central figure in the debate and the presidential campaign — Donald Trump — was on the receiving end of almost constant critiques, jabs and dress-downs from his rivals on the stage. Cruz's clear insistence that he will not alienate Trump meant that in this context, he was left on the sidelines for much of the night.
CNN moderator Jake Tapper did not ask Cruz a question until nearly thirty minutes into the three-hour debate, and even before the night began, it was clear there was little upside for Cruz to to engage with Trump, or anyone else.
The only real sparring Cruz did was with former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, when Cruz criticized Bush's father and brother — former Presidents George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush — for their appointments of former Justice David Souter and current Chief Justice John Roberts to the U.S. Supreme Court. Cruz charged that the two Bush presidents had more conservative options for the high court, and had they made different appointments, the high court would have ruled differently on cases that enraged the conservative base.
Jeb Bush counter-argued that Cruz, who has previously described Roberts as a mentor and a friend, backed Roberts at the time of his appointment.
“That was a mistake and I regret that,” Cruz said.
Wednesday night's debate was a different setting from the first GOP debate on Aug. 6, where Fox News hosted 10 candidates on its main stage at the Cleveland Cavaliers' basketball arena. CNN expanded its lineup to include former Hewlett Packard CEO Carly Fiorina, and its debate stage was in a smaller venue at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library.
When Cruz did take center stage, he spoke directly into the camera and seemed to draw from his stump speeches, addressing the Iran deal and his efforts to defund Planned Parenthood.
At one point, though, he praised Trump and knocked retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson on immigration.
"I'm very glad that Donald Trump's being in this race has forced the mainstream media finally to talk about illegal immigration," Cruz said.
Then he shifted to Carson, taking an indirect shot at his proposed immigration policies.
"I like and respect Ben Carson. I'll let him talk about his own plans," Cruz said.
But he added: "I will say this: The natural next question that primary voters are asking after we focus on illegal immigration is, okay, what are the records of the various candidates? And this is an issue on which there are stark differences."
"I am the only candidate on this stage who has never supported amnesty and, in fact, who helped lead the fight to stop a massive amnesty plan," Cruz said.
Carson denied that his plan was amnesty. The meaning of that term is widely disputed in conservative politics.
The junior senator from Texas entered the debate tied for fourth place with U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., in a recent Washington Post poll. The two men trail Trump, Carson and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush.
Cruz was not the only candidate with a low profile on the stage. Lasting only two hours, the format made it nearly impossible for any of the 11 candidates to have substantial air time.
Except for Trump.
The real estate developer either heckled or was heckled by several candidates on the stage. Most of the questioning focused on engaging Trump with Bush and Fiorina, two candidates with whom he shared biting exchanges on the trail in recent weeks.
The most dramatic moment of the night involved a Trump back-and-forth with Fiorina, the only woman in the debate and in the GOP nomination chase.
CNN's Tapper asked Fiorina to respond to derogatory comments the real estate developer made about her appearance to Rolling Stone.
Fiorina used an unrelated comment Trump made about Bush to segue into her retort.
“You know it’s interesting to me, Mr. Trump said that he heard Mr. Bush clearly, in what Mr. Bush said,” she said. “I think women all over this country heard very clearly what Mr. Trump said.”
Trump responded: “I think she’s got a beautiful face and I think she’s a beautiful woman”