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The Brief: Cruz Takes Frontrunner Role in Low Key Debate

Without Donald Trump on stage, the GOP presidential debate Thursday night in Des Moines, Iowa, took a turn to the low key.

Presidential contender and U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz at the Fox News - Google GOP debate in Des Moines, Iowa on Jan. 28, 2016.

The Big Conversation

Without Donald Trump on stage, the GOP presidential debate Thursday night in Des Moines, Iowa, took a turn to the low key.

And, according to the Ted Cruz campaign, that was perfectly OK.

"If people tune in for WWE, I mean, they're not getting what they want," Cruz campaign manager Jeff Roe told reporters after the debate, as reported by the Tribune’s Patrick Svitek. "But if you're a Republican caucus goer, that's, like, good stuff. You got to see a difference in economic policy, in foreign policy, in social priorities."

Trump, of course, had decided to skip the encounter, the final debate before Monday’s Iowa caucuses, after complaining that he would not get a fair shake from the moderators from Fox News.

Without his fellow frontrunner, Cruz took incoming fire for much of the encounter from Marco Rubio and also from Rand Paul.

Rubio said of Cruz, "We’re not going to beat Hillary Clinton with someone who will say or do anything to win an election," while Paul said Cruz has an “authenticity problem.”

“Trump's absence effectively made Cruz the frontrunner on the stage,” wrote Svitek, “and he seemed reluctant at times to engage too much with his lower-polling foes. Like he has done in a number of prior debates, though, he did find a convenient foil in the debate moderators, criticizing them for trying to get the candidates to attack each other.”

Trib Must Reads

Spitzer, Gooden Prepare for Round Three in HD 4, by Julián Aguilar — Former state Rep. Lance Gooden wants his seat in the Texas House back, setting up a rubber match in the Republican primary for House District 4 with the man who beat him in 2014, Stuart Spitzer.

Analysis: The Death of Taxes on Illegal Drugs in Texas, by Ross Ramsey — Until the most recent legislative session, the state had a tax on illegal drugs, adding tax evasion to the list of things that could put buyers and sellers into jail. Those drugs remain illegal, but the transactions are now tax-free.

In Re-Election Bid, Straus Faces Familiar Tea Party Attacks, by Alexa Ura — House Speaker Joe Straus finds himself in a familiar position, fending off Tea Party primary challenges to hold his San Antonio seat and, presumably, his grip on the gavel.

Hegar Calls Moody's Dour Texas Budget Report "Unfounded”, by Jim Malewitz — Comptroller Glenn Hegar launched a torrent of criticism at Moody’s Investors Service on Thursday after the credit rating agency released a report suggesting a drilling slowdown could eat up a projected $4 billion budget surplus by December.

Abbott Likely to "Weigh In" on 2016 Race Before Texas Primary, by Patrick Svitek — Gov. Greg Abbott said Thursday he plans to "weigh in" on the 2016 presidential race ahead of the Texas primary, raising the possibility of an endorsement before March 1.

Report: Not Enough Done Since West Explosion, by Kiah Collier — The Texas Legislature’s efforts to beef up state oversight and avert deadly disasters like the 2013 West fertilizer plant explosion have been “not entirely adequate,” the federal Chemical Safety Board says in its final report.

In Iowa, Cruz Faces a Debate Without a Rival, by Patrick Svitek — In a race that has already seen its fair share of twists and turns, Ted Cruz is staring down an uncertainty unlike any other: whether his closest competition will show up for the last debate before the first-in-the-nation caucuses.

The Day Ahead

•    Texas Land Commissioner George P. Bush will be among the speakers at the Texas School Choice Week rally when it begins at 11 a.m. on the south side steps of the Capitol.

•    Gov. Greg Abbott will deliver the keynote address at the San Jacinto County Republican Party's Lincoln Reagan Day Dinner at 6:45 p.m. in the Cleveland Civic Center.

Elsewhere

Garcia: McClendon’s district headed for special-election chaos, San Antonio Express-News

City 'concerned' for conference business in post-HERO Houston, Houston Chronicle

New presidential poll shows Cruz leading Trump 30-25 in Texas, The Dallas Morning News

Texas billionaire offers incentive for Trump to debate Cruz, Fort Worth Star-Telegram

Rattlesnake festivals in question as state ponders gassing ban, Midland Reporter-Telegram

SCOTUS decision leaves Texas on the hook for $1 million-plus in fees for redistricting case, San Antonio Express-News

A&M hopes to draw more minority, rural students to veterinary school, Austin American-Statesman

Trump camp says he'll debate Cruz once he proves eligibility, Politico

Unrecognized risk: An increase in young stroke patients, Austin American-Statesman

Zika virus, already in Houston, poses global health threat, Houston Chronicle

Quote to Note

“Now secondly, let me say, I’m a maniac, and everyone on this stage is fat, stupid and ugly. And Ben, you’re a terrible surgeon."

— Republican presidential candidate Ted Cruz, impersonating rival Donald Trump, who was absent, during the last debate before the Iowa caucuses. 

News From Home

•    In this week's Roundup, the Tribune's Alana Rocha and Justin Dehn take a look at the people behind the undercover videos of Planned Parenthood Gulf Coast in Houston who are now facing criminal charges, at the University of Texas at Austin professor who said he won't follow the campus carry law and at Ted Cruz exhausting his energy in Iowa ahead of Monday's caucuses.

•    If you've received a campaign mailer, let us know about it. You can loop us in by sending an electronic version to this email address. Help us collect campaign communications ahead of the vital March 1 primary elections.

Trib Events for the Calendar

•    The Texas Tribune's second Texas-centric Trivia Night on Jan. 31 at The Highball in Austin

•    A Conversation with Rep. Trey Martinez Fischer on Feb. 4 at the Austin Club

•    A Conversation with Sen. José Menéndez on Feb. 11 at the Austin Club

•    The Ticket: A Live Recording and Democratic Primary Debate Watch Party on Feb. 11 at KUT Public Media Studios in Austin

•    A Conversation with Sen. Eddie Lucio Jr. and Rep. Jose Manuel Lozano on Feb. 25 at Texas A&M University-Kingsville

•    A Conversation with Sen. Carlos Uresti and Rep. Poncho Nevárez on March 23 at Sul Ross State University in Alpine

•    Symposium on Transportation on March 29 at Texas A&M University in College Station

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