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GOP Candidates Hold Debate In Miami Ahead Of 5 Major Contests


Did you think we were done with presidential primary debates? Come on. The four remaining Republicans will meet again tonight in Miami. On Tuesday, five big states vote. Many of them are winner-take-all, which means the delegate count could either strengthen Donald Trump's lead or give other candidates fresh reasons to stay in the race. Joining us for a preview of tonight's debate is NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson. Mara, welcome back once again.

MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: Thanks for having me.

SHAPIRO: Donald Trump has won 15 out 23 contests so far, and elements of the Republican Party have launched an all-out effort to stop him on Tuesday. What can we expect from Trump tonight?

LIASSON: That's the question. It's very hard to know what to expect because Trump is unpredictable. But lately, he has been trying to appear more presidential. He's been holding press conferences instead of rallies after his primary wins in order to project more gravitas. So the thing to watch for tonight is whether the Donald Trump who calls his opponent stupid and fat and losers shows up, or will it be the Donald Trump who promised on Tuesday night - he said, quote, "I can be more presidential than anybody other than the great Abe Lincoln; he was very presidential, right?"

SHAPIRO: Tuesday night, when he was also selling his stakes and his water...

LIASSON: Yes, yes, yes.

SHAPIRO: ...And his magezine and his vodka - yeah. OK Ted Cruz appears to be in second place so far. He's trying to rally the GOP behind him. What's his challenge tonight?

LIASSON: Well, his challenge tonight is really to make the case that if the nominee is not going to be Trump, it should be him. Going forward, however, he doesn't have a lot of great states ahead of him. They're Midwest states, then New York, New Jersey, California. But some establishment Republicans in the never-Trump movement are coming around to the idea that as much as they dislike Cruz, he might be their only choice. He just got his very first endorsement from a fellow senator - Mike Lee of Utah.

So tonight, something to watch for is whether Cruz uses his formidable debating skills to try again to cut Trump down to size, or does he punch down? Does he attack Rubio and Kasich, whose continued presence in the race is preventing him from consolidating the anti-Trump vote?

SHAPIRO: Now, let's talk about Marco Rubio, whose home state, Florida, votes on Tuesday, who, not long ago, might have been the candidate to consolidate the non-Trump wing of the Republican Party. Then he attacked Trump in a pretty personal way and told Fox News last night he regrets the attack.


MARCO RUBIO: My kids were embarrassed by it. My wife didn't like it. I don't think it reflects good. That's not who I am.

SHAPIRO: So, Mara, where does Rubio go from here?

LIASSON: Well, that's a good question. Obviously the strategy of becoming Trumpian (ph) didn't work for Rubio, and Trump actually needled him about that on Tuesday night. He pointed out, quote, "hostility works for some people; it doesn't work for everybody, OK?" Translation - I can be hostile, but little Marco can't.

Rubio really does have the most to lose next week. If he doesn't win his home state, he's - will not only give up any shred of viability as a candidate, but he could also hurt his political career going forward because unlike Cruz and Kasich who have day jobs they can go back to, Rubio gave up his Senate seat to run for president, and he's not running for reelection in the fall.

SHAPIRO: Well, speaking of Kasich, he is the fourth man on the stage. Ohio Governor John Kasich - what does he have to do? He wasn't won a state yet.

LIASSON: He hasn't, and the polls in Ohio are all over the place. Some show him beating Trump. Others don't. He said that if he doesn't win Ohio, he will drop out of the race. So tonight, what does Kasich do to claw his way back into contention? Does he continue his Mr.-nice-guy strategy where he's above the fray, showing that he's reasonable, not very partisan, not very angry, as fed up with the antics of his opponents as most voters are? Or does he actually try to take on Donald Trump. Granted, that hasn't worked for anyone else, but there's not much time left.

SHAPIRO: NPR's Mara Liasson - thanks, as always, Mara.

LIASSON: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Mara Liasson is a national political correspondent for NPR. Her reports can be heard regularly on NPR's award-winning newsmagazine programs Morning Edition and All Things Considered. Liasson provides extensive coverage of politics and policy from Washington, DC — focusing on the White House and Congress — and also reports on political trends beyond the Beltway.