Behind the lectern were seven American flags. The sounds of the national anthem and shouts of "USA! USA!" filled the room.

The scene was an auditorium at Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa, where an exuberant crowd awaited Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump. He was not there yet, but the show had already begun - all in front of a large media contingent.

When Trump came out from behind the curtain, it was his state. Less than a week before the Iowa caucuses, he is leading in all the polls.

Across town, the other Republican candidates were facing heated questions in a televised debate. For Trump, there were no tough questions, no counter-arguments, no opponents - only support.

"I support him because he tells the truth, unlike the others," said 68-year-old Ricky Redcliffe, who drove three and a half hours from Minnesota to see Trump.

The debate pitted seven of Trump's main rivals in the Republican race for the presidential nomination.

Ted Cruz, running second in many polls, had to fend off attacks from other candidates, including former Florida governor Jeb Bush, Florida Senator Marco Rubio and Ohio Governor John Kasich.

It was the last televised Republican debate before intra-party voting is held in Iowa on Monday.

Trump made good on earlier threats to drop out, meaning the last major televised debate occurred without the radical candidate who has challenged the US political establishment in unprecedented ways.

Ostensibly, Trump's refusal to participate was about a dispute with Fox News. He clashed with moderator Megyn Kelly during a previous debate, accusing her of showing favouritism to his competitors. Kelly was among the debate's questioners again on Thursday.

Trump stayed away because he was "treated badly," he told his audience. He was not standing centre-stage in the heart of Des Moines, but he still received plenty of adulation.

At Trump's event, which was reportedly cobbled together within 48 hours, the media presence was notable. About 200 journalists and 800 attendees were in the auditorium.

"We have more cameras here than are over there (at the debate)," Trump joked, while complaining how the other candidates are corrupt and let themselves be guided by lobbyists.

Trump invited two fellow Republican presidential candidates, Rick Santorum and Mike Huckabee, to be part of his event.

Neither has a chance of winning his party's nomination - their poll numbers were not high enough to be included in the main debate - but both offered Trump high praise.

There were few references to Trump at the debate, but when Kelly asked about "the elephant not in the room," Cruz attempted to imitate Trump's infamous taunts.

"Let me say I'm a maniac and everyone on this stage is stupid, fat and ugly. And Ben, you're a terrible surgeon," Cruz said in an attempt at humour that fell flat.

With that "Donald Trump portion out of the way," Cruz went on to thank the other candidates for showing respect "to the people of this state and the people of the country."

But Cruz drew boos when he complained about questions that he said invited the other candidates to attack him.

Bush, formerly a favourite in the race, might have profited the most without Trump on the stage. He spoke ironically about his foe: "I kind of miss Donald Trump. He was a little teddy bear to me. We always had such a loving relationship in these debates."

Trump went after Bush in earlier debates, hitting him hard. Without Trump, the debate featured more substance, was less noisy and stuck to topics voters care about.

The dominant themes included foreign policy and the fight against terrorism. But no one managed to fill the void left by Trump.

Cruz, who stood at the centre podium previously occupied by Trump, made an especially nice target for his opponents, who criticized his shifting position on immigration.

Rubio tried to score points with tough talk: "If we capture any of these [Islamic State] killers alive, they are going to Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and we're going to find out everything they know, because when I'm president, unlike Barack Obama, we will keep this country safe."

Bush made no mistakes, but he also did not shine. Kasich offered himself as a moderate alternative with a successful record running Ohio. Chris Christie, governor of New Jersey, attacked Hillary Clinton, the front-running Democrat, for a scandal over the use of a private email server while she was secretary of state.

Ben Carson, a retired neurosurgeon, is still in the running, but he was so low-key in his demeanor that he did not stand out. Rand Paul, who returned to the main stage because of Trump's absence, landed at least a few sharp punches.

In the end they returned again to the candidate who was not there. When Bush tried to make the point that candidates' words have consequences, he admitted it was a reference to Trump's statement about banning Muslims from entering the country.

"Donald Trump - I mentioned his name, in case anyone missed him," Bush said.

Related stories

Latest news

Syrian opposition rules out future role for President al-Assad

The Syrian opposition said Friday it would not accept any role for President Bashar al-Assad in the future of the war-torn country, reacting to a recent US shift saying that removing al-Assad is no longer a priority for Washington.

Russian Army integrates breakaway forces of Georgian province

Parts of the small fighting forces of the Georgian breakaway province of South Ossetia have been placed under Russian military control, Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu said on Friday.

Czech Republic's Pilsner Urquell beer is now Japanese

Japanese brewing company Asahi completed its takeover of the Czech brewery Pilsner Urquell on Friday, Asahi said in a statement.

Judge approves 25-million-dollar settlement of Trump University case

A US district judge on Friday approved a 25-million-dollar settlement of lawsuits and state fraud allegations against Trump University, the US president's now-defunct business venture.

Former Thai premier Thaksin to junta on reconciliation: 'Cut me out'

Former Thai prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra on Friday announced that he is not interested in the junta-led reconciliation process, three days after the junta handed him a half-a-billion-dollar tax bill for his past business deal.

Dalic: We welcome possible deal between Agrokor and banks

The government welcomes the possibility of an agreement being concluded between the Agrokor food company and creditor banks, and the bill on vitally important companies is not a fallback plan but the result of the government's care for the overall economic and financial stability of Croatia, Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Economy Martina Dalic told a press conference in Zagreb on Friday.

Croatia, China sign action plan for cooperation in agriculture

The Croatian and Chinese ministries of agriculture on Friday signed an action plan for cooperation in the field of agriculture for the period 2017-2018, the Croatian ministry said in a statement.

ZSE indices up, Agrokor shares in focus of investor interest

The Zagreb Stock Exchange (ZSE) indices on Friday rose by more than 1.8%, with stocks of the Agrokor food and retail concern being in the focus of investor interest again.

Berlin police defend handling of Berlin market attacker

Berlin police defended themselves on Friday against accusations that they stopped surveillance on Berlin Christmas market attacker despite knowing in June 2016 he was dangerous.

Croatia, creditors tailor emergency measures to save tottering giant

Croatia's tottering retail and food giant Agrokor reached an agreement with its creditors, putting its debts standby and allowing it to continue working during emergency restructuring, the Croatian branch of Austria's Erste Bank said Friday.

Agrokor's creditors say standstill agreement to go into force today

A standstill agreement regarding the Agrokor concern's existing financial obligations to banks will take effect on Friday, additional capital will be injected into the concern in the coming days and the concern will be actively restructured, which includes a change of its management, it was said on Friday after a meeting between Agrokor's suppliers and creditor banks.

Palestinians, UN slam Israel's new settlement plan

Palestinians, Israeli activists and the UN lambasted the government of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Friday, a day after it gave the go-ahead for the first new West Bank settlement in a quarter of a century.

South Sudan rebels release three abducted foreign oil workers

South Sudanese rebels have released three foreign engineers they abducted in early March in the oil-rich Upper Nile region, Foreign Affairs Ministry official Mawein Makol Arik said on Friday.

Turkish opposition: Imprisoned party chief has gone on hunger strike

The head of Turkey's pro-Kurdish opposition party has launched a hunger strike from prison.

European leagues threaten Champions League schedule clashes

The European Professional Football Leagues (EPFL) on Friday threatened schedule clashes on Champions League matchdays in an ongoing dispute with the governing body UEFA.

Danish court revokes citizenship of IS volunteer

A Danish appellate court on Friday stripped a man of his Danish citizenship for volunteering to fight for the extremist Islamic State in Syria.

Banks and Agrokor agree on key elements of standstill agreement

Member banks of the coordinating committee of financial creditors and representatives of the Agrokor food company have in principle agreed on key elements of a standstill agreement, which is expected to be signed later today, announcing changes in the company's management team, Erste Bank said in a statement on Friday afternoon.

Syrian man on trial in Sweden; mosque attack labelled terrorism

A Syrian man went on trial Friday in the southern Swedish city of Malmo, charged with terrorism and arson after an attack last year on a building used as an assembly hall by Shiite Muslims.