Republican primary debates, turned topsy-turvy seven months ago from the moment Donald Trump first took the stage, regained a semblance of normalcy Thursday night at the University of Miami.
And the result was disorienting.
There were the four candidates, cordially fielding questions about trade, immigration and education — and overlooking chances to pound each other over their differences. When Marco Rubio failed to completely answer a question about Social Security, CNN’s Dana Bash received… an apology.
“So far I cannot believe how civil it’s been up here,” Trump quipped.
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Trump shocked the political system to such an extent when he took the 2016 campaign by storm last summer that a return to a more traditional, issues-oriented debate felt like the start of a new presidential race.
Except, of course, it wasn’t.
So far I cannot believe how civil it’s been up here.
The debate in Coral Gables came five days before Florida’s and Ohio’s primaries, contests so crucial that they could effectively end the candidacies of half the candidates — Rubio and Ohio Gov. John Kasich — and leave a two-man competition between Trump and Ted Cruz.
But even though Rubio and Kasich may have been in their campaigns’ final throes, they showed little sense of desperation. Compare that to a week ago, when a mere seven minutes into the debate, Trump defended himself from recent attacks by bragging about his physical endowment.
On Thursday, the first disagreement between candidates — a mild one, over policy — happened a full 32 minutes into the debate.
“It was time we had that tone,” Trump told reporters after the debate. “It’s just a good tone tonight. Solid tone.”
Still, Trump dominated. The first two topics under civil debate — trade and immigration — played directly into his message, showing how much his candidacy has reshaped the modern Republican Party.
At one point, Trump even conceded that his business empire relies on a type of worker visa known as H1-B that he wants to eliminate, citing rampant abuse, including at Disney World in Orlando.
“I’m a businessman,” he said, “and I have to do what I have to do.”
No one challenged him.
Later, he essentially advocated for legalizing torture. The crowd of a couple thousand people enthusiastically applauded. Cruz’s response that “We’ve never targeted innocent civilians, and we’re not going to start now” got a colder reception.
Cruz did manage to articulate — better than his opponents have before — a more pointed argument against Trump: that while he’s been effective at giving voice to voters’ frustrations, he’s failed to grasp what causes problems or how to fix them.
“Listen, we’ve got lots of challenges in the world. But the answer can’t just be, wave a magic wand and say, ‘Problem, go away,’” the Texas senator said. “You have to understand the problems. You have to have real solutions.”
Several exchanges ignored Rubio and Kasich completely, with Trump and Cruz sharing center stage and viewers’ television screens. Trump said only the two of them have a shot at the nomination. Cruz agreed, dismissing chatter of a contested July convention and asking Rubio and Kasich supporters to back him.
“You know, there are some in Washington who are having fevered dreams of a brokered convention,” Cruz said. “They are unhappy with how the people are voting and they want to parachute in their favored Washington candidate to be the nominee. I think that would be an absolute disaster, and we need to respect the will of the voters.”
Chimed in Rubio: “I believe that at the end of this process this nation will make the right choice because I’ve always believed that God has blessed America, that God’s hand is upon this country and that its greatest days are yet to come.”
The hometown audience showered him with applause.
I don’t know where Cuba’s going to sue us, but if they sue us in a court in Miami, they’re going to lose.
Rubio had more riding on the debate than anyone else — and didn’t have a breakout moment, though neither did any of his rivals. The debate took place in Rubio’s own city, ahead of a must-win primary. He trails Trump in every poll. He’s lost so many states, one after the other, that his supporters have little hope to think he can win.
Rubio abandoned his recent strategy of repeatedly interrupting Trump over past failed business ventures. A day earlier, Rubio had chalked up some of his recent losses to making strident personal jabs at Trump. So he stopped doing those — and Trump did too. He made no mention of “Little Marco.”
The Florida senator acknowledged his losses — “On Tuesday night I didn’t do as well, obviously, as I wanted to,” he said of this week’s contests — and, sounding reflective, said the election matters to him personally because his campaign has an elderly volunteer who heads to an early voting site day after day, sitting on an aluminum chair, even though he’s supposed to be resting after surgery.
After the debate, Rubio briefly thanked backers gathered at a UM watch party and said he felt “really good” about his performance.
“We have five days to make it happen,” he told them. “If we win Florida, we’ll take off like a rocket.”
During the debate, Rubio’s two best lines of the night came in response to Trump.
“I’m not interested in being politically correct. I’m interested in being correct,” Rubio said after Trump defended his proposal to temporarily ban most Muslims from entering the country.
Later, the debate moderators — a group that included CNN’s Jake Tapper, the Washington Times’ Stephen Dinan and Salem radio’s Hugh Hewitt — pressed Trump on his support of President Barack Obama’s renewed diplomatic relations toward Cuba. Trump suggested Cuba could take the U.S. to court for reparations.
“We don’t have our right people negotiating, we have people that don’t have a clue,” Trump said. “As an example, I heard recently where the threat was made that they want reparations for years of abuse by the United States, and nobody’s talking about it, and they’ll end up signing a deal and then we’ll get sued for $400 billion or $1 trillion.”
Trying to distance himself somewhat from Obama, Trump added: “I would want to make a good deal. I would want to make a strong, solid, good deal, because right now, everything is in Cuba’s favor.”
“I don’t know where Cuba’s going to sue us, but if they sue us in a court in Miami, they’re going to lose,” Rubio said with a smile. He received the biggest applause of the night.
For good measure, he added: “Here’s a good deal: Cuba has free elections, Cuba stops putting people in jail for speaking out, Cuba has freedom of the press, Cuba kicks out the Russians from Lourdes and kicks out the Chinese listening station in Bejucal, Cuba stops helping North Korea evade U.N. sanctions, Cuba takes all of those fugitives of American justice — including that cop killer from New Jersey and send her back to the United States and to jail where she belongs. And you know what? Then we can have a relationship with Cuba. That’s a good deal.”
Cuba may be Rubio’s strongest issue — but then Tapper turned to one where Rubio found it harder to defend himself.
Tapper mentioned that Miami Mayor Tomás Regalado, a Rubio supporter, has asked all Republican presidential contenders to take on climate change, an issue Rubio hasn’t made a priority.
“The climate is always changing,” Rubio said, resorting to his usual response.
Miami Herald staff writer Joey Flechas and photographer Emily Michot, and McClatchy correspondent Lesley Clark, contributed to this report.