With Republican front runner Donald Trump elsewhere engaged, his main rival Ted Cruz fell flat when he tried some of the master showman's language during the last debate before voters head to the polls in Iowa to nominate their party's presidential candidate.
"I'm a maniac and everyone on this stage is stupid, fat and ugly. And Ben, you're a terrible surgeon," Mr Cruz said, looking at retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson. "We've gotten the Donald Trump portion out of the way," he quipped.
The Texas senator's attempt at humour raised a few chuckles but analysts assessed him as one of the biggest losers among the seven hopefuls on stage. Former Florida governor Jeb Bush and Florida Senator Marco Rubio emerged strongly.
Without Mr Trump, there was little engagement between the candidates, who seemed happy to focus on former secretary of state Hillary Clinton as the Democrat enemy.
"The outcome of the debate could put Senator Cruz's runner-up finish in Iowa in jeopardy and open the door to a Marco Rubio surprise finish, which would provide his campaign with momentum heading into the more favourable landscape of New Hampshire the following week," said Mr Aaron Kall, director of debate at the University of Michigan.
Mr Trump opted out of Thursday night's debate as he said he was treated unfairly by moderator Megyn Kelly during the first Republican debate last August when she challenged him on his attitude towards women. Instead, he held a competing event in Des Moines, Iowa, to raise money for wounded veterans.
Mr Kall said Mr Cruz, who trails Mr Trump in Iowa, had the most to gain from his absence but "experienced a nightmare of an evening".
"His joke about leaving the debate (in reference to Mr Trump) was met with a dead silence from the audience and attempts to attack the moderators failed miserably," said Mr Kall.
Mr Cruz and Mr Rubio locked horns over illegal immigration after the Fox News moderators ran a compilation of clips in which Mr Cruz said he was seeking "common ground" and "middle ground" on immigration reform.
"This is the lie that Ted's campaign is built on," Senator Rubio said, arguing that Mr Cruz had supported providing legal status to undocumented immigrants. Mr Cruz struck back. "I like Marco," he said, unconvincingly. "He's very charming. He's very smooth."
Without the jabs from Mr Trump, Mr Bush appeared more confident and seemed to have the upper hand during the exchange with Mr Rubio on immigration reform, where they accused each other of changing their position for political expediency. Said Mr Bush: "He (Rubio) led the charge to finally fix this immigration problem... And then he cut and run because it wasn't popular amongst conservatives, I guess."
Mr Rubio responded by highlighting that Mr Bush had written a book where he, too, changed his position from a path of citizenship to a path of legalisation. But Mr Bush hit back: "Yeah, so did you, Marco."
Some of the sharper questions of the night centred on the candi-dates' electability.
Mr Cruz was singled out as having no endorsements from Republican senators, to which he said he placed more value on the endorsement of his campaign volunteers as opposed to "career politicians".
And when moderators suggested that Mr Bush might not be able to beat Mrs Clinton, he dismissed the polls, saying he has a "proven record" as governor of Florida, compared to Mrs Clinton who has "no record of accomplishment".
But Mr Trumpissued the last salvo via Twitter: "An unbelievable night in Iowa with our great Veterans! We raised $6,000,000.00 while the politicians talked!"