KNOXVILLE, Iowa — Marco Rubio was getting a fresh look from voters, Donald Trump remained defiant and strong, and Ted Cruz was staggered the day after a televised political showdown unlike any other.

Heading into the final weekend before Iowa voters decide whom they want as the nation’s 45th president, Thursday’s unprecedented split-screen Republican events made it clear that the state’s Republican race is a three-way battle.

Trump, who skipped the Des Moines debate and held his own rally honoring veterans, didn’t appear to gain or lose as he continued to defy political convention. While his rivals barnstormed Iowa on Friday, he was in New Hampshire boasting to supporters that he had won the night.

“When you’re not treated properly you have to stick up for your rights, and if I’m your leader we’re going to stick up for the rights of the country,” he said.

Trump’s moves reinforced his stature with his followers, who love his creative ways of upending conventional wisdom, and they further soured him among critics.

Ratings for the debate sank, as he predicted; the debate was the second lowest-rated of the seven Republican debates this campaign. It still drew 12.5 million viewers. Trump didn’t inherit those who looked elsewhere — his event, televised on two rival cable networks, got 3.1 million viewers.

In Iowa, where Trump has a small lead, voters saw his refusal to debate as unsurprising.

“Trump’s not showing up? You can’t blame him,” said John Ryan 2nd, a Knoxville community college student. “People for him say he stood for something.”

Trump’s opponents got some hope they had a new weapon. When voters caucus Monday night, they’ll first hear brief pitches from each candidate’s supporters. “We’ll focus on the arrogance,” said Craig Lang, a Brooklyn dairy farmer who backs Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky.

Cruz, though, was now a candidate under siege. Opponents charged Thursday that his views on immigration were too accommodating to those in the country illegally. They also cited his inability to get along with Washington colleagues.

Jeff Roe, Cruz’s campaign manager, was unfazed. “No hits we’ve taken destabilized what our core message is,” he said. He told a Bloomberg Politics breakfast Friday that Cruz had $19 million available at the beginning of 2016, a strong showing.

The main political event Friday in quiet Knoxville, population 7,313, was Paul’s talk to about 60 supporters at the National Sprint Car Hall of Fame. Paul’s support has been lagging, and there’s speculation that unless he pulls a surprise Monday, he could turn his attention to getting re-elected as a U.S. senator from Kentucky.

His backers were keeping an eye on other candidates. They were curious about Rubio, but stopped short of embracing him.

Rubio, a senator from Florida, has become the favorite of center-right Republicans in this state. He’s had a boost from the endorsement of The Des Moines Register.

He was up to 18 percent support in the Marist/NBC/Wall Street Journal Iowa poll Jan. 24 to 26, within striking distance of second-place Cruz at 25 percent.


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