When the New Hampshire political forum was finished, the group of Republicans who participated ambled around on the stage, awkwardly shaking each other’s hands, backslapping, and even giving out a few hugs.
It was an ample illustration of the entire night—each candidate speaking rapidly in response to multiple questions, trying to prove that they all belonged on the stage in the presidential contest.
Meanwhile, the absent Donald Trump was gleefully retweeting his new high poll numbers from Fox News on Twitter.
He also took time to praise some of his critics, praising esteemed conservative pundit Charles Krauthammer, who described Trump on Fox News as “Teflon Don… for now.”
“Thank you [Charles] Krauthammer for your nice comments on the O’Reilly Factor,” he wrote on Twitter. “A lot of progress is being made!” Donald Trump also retweeted a tweet from someone who identified as a retired police officer and a U.S. Naval Aviation veteran.
“Trump opens his mouth, his numbers go up. When Hillary does it, hers go down,” his supporter wrote. “Must be something to it.”
But back at the forum, moderator Jack Heath was purposefully ignoring the absent billionaire.
“I won’t even mention a candidate who’s not here,” he said, during a conversation with Sen. Lindsey Graham about John McCain.
After the forum was over, Heath said it was a priority to spend more attention on the issues instead of the missing candidate.
“My goal, as a moderator, was to not bring up Mr. Trump,” he admitted.
Heath brought several good questions to the table but failed to hold each candidate’s feet to the fire if they failed to answer the question.
Many of the candidates ignored the excellent questions just to get their elevator speech out of their mouths. No applause was allowed, making it uncertain who was making an impact as they peppered their time with talking points.
The forum’s background favored a few of the more charismatic candidates, like Sen. Lindsey Graham and Gov. Chris Christie, and the more wonky candidates, like Gov. Bobby Jindal and Gov. Scott Walker, who bragged in detail about their records.
The three C-SPAN senators, Sen. Rand Paul, Sen. Ted Cruz, and Sen. Marco Rubio, who participated via satellite, had to effectively teleport their campaign into a serious New Hampshire forum after suffering a failed evening vote to move forward on defunding Planned Parenthood.
Sen. Ted Cruz thrived in the less-than-ideal situation, earnestly addressing the cameras as if they were his own campaign supporters. Sen. Rand Paul stared blankly at the cameras, asserting that he had just led the fight to defund Obamacare (they were there to defund Planned Parenthood). Sen. Marco Rubio appeared unsettled by the lack of people in the room, as if he needed the energy of an audience to succeed.
When the cameras panned out, the three senators were still on camera at C-SPAN, smiling awkwardly and trying to share the spotlight with the packed stage of hopeful Republicans.