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GOP Presidential Contenders Stay Classy With Major Shift In Debate Tone And Pitch

(From left) Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, Donald Trump, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz and Ohio Gov. John Kasich before the start of the Republican presidential debate Thursday in Miami.
Wilfredo Lee
(From left) Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, Donald Trump, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz and Ohio Gov. John Kasich before the start of the Republican presidential debate Thursday in Miami.

After one more debate among the Republican contenders for president, the postgame conversation was once again dominated by Donald Trump's behavior.

But for once, it was about his good behavior. He did not shout or fulminate, nor did he pout or belittle his opponents or joust with the moderators.

In fact, after an even dozen of these events, all four remaining candidates kept a remarkably even keel at the University of Miami. Their previous two meetings had been rife with personal attacks that, at times, became almost juvenile, but on this night all four seemed intent on elevating the tone and tending to business.

The themes of the night were almost entirely policy oriented, with a few forays into political process and tiffs over who was doing better or more likely to win in November if nominated.

The two-hour debate was shown on CNN and co-sponsored by the Salem Media Group and The Washington Times. And although there is at least one more debate scheduled in Salt Lake City on March 21, the Miami event had the feeling of a finale.

The moderators began with a long discussion of job creation, which segued into trade, visas for high-tech workers, Social Security, the national debt, Obamacare, education policy, Common Core and, of course, immigration.

Much of the attention was on Donald Trump and Ted Cruz, who have together amassed more than 800 delegates to date. But both Marco Rubio and John Kasich, who face do-or-die primaries in their home states on Tuesday, had ample opportunity to defend their place in the race.

Trump, as has been typical, got most of the air time, with more than 27 minutes. Cruz and Rubio followed with a little under 22 minutes each, Kasich with less than 19.

Rubio and Kasich delivered solid reprises of their strongest debate moments to date, as if to say that if this was going to be their last outing, they would at least be at their best. Rubio, most notably, was once again the smooth and earnest spokesman for a new American dream, sharp on the issue details and long on the idealistic overtures. It was easier to understand why his expectations had been so high than to understand his third- and fourth-place finishes.

"For over two centuries, America has been an exceptional nation," Rubio said. "And now the time has come for this generation to do what it must do to keep it that way. If we make the right choice in this election, our children are going to be the freest and most prosperous Americans that have ever lived."

Kasich had this to say near the end of the debate:

"I have run an unwavering, positive campaign for president of the United States. ... Sometimes being positive isn't all that interesting, but it's very interesting to my family, my children and so many supporters that I meet all across the country, and I will continue to run a positive campaign."

In essence, though, both Rubio and Kasich trail so far behind in the delegate count that they are at this point running for influence at the convention and a prospective vice presidential bid. Either might make a classic running mate with high name recognition and campaign experience.

Florida is the largest swing state in the Electoral College, and no Republican has ever won the White House without winning Ohio.

Cruz, who has been Trump's closest competitor thus far, returned several times to the difference between talking about problems and knowing how to solve them.

"Donald is right," Cruz said, gesturing toward Trump. "For example, he was just talking about international trade. He's right about the problems. But his solutions don't work. So, for example, his solution on international trade, he proposed earlier a 45 percent tariff on foreign goods. Now, he backed away from that immediately, and he may come back with a different number tonight."

At another point, Cruz referred to his rival as "a candidate who has been funding liberal Democrats and funding the Washington establishment," adding that "it's very hard to imagine how suddenly this candidate is going to take on Washington."

Trump was once again the man in the middle. But he was markedly different in playing the central role. He found a deft way, when discussing education, to mention that former rival candidate Ben Carson would be endorsing him the next day (an important coup given Carson's image, aura and remaining bloc of voters).

As ever, Trump pushed back when others pushed him, but without the ferocity seen in earlier debates. Questioned about how he could get tough on trade and immigration when his businesses brought in foreign workers and made products overseas, Trump responded calmly and firmly:

"Because nobody knows the system better than me. ... I'm a businessman. These are laws. These are regulations. These are rules. We're allowed to do it. ... So I will take advantage of it; they're the laws. But I'm the one that knows how to change it. Nobody else on this stage knows how to change it like I do, believe me."

Challenged over a protester who was beaten at one of Trump's rallies this week, Trump said he did not condone such behavior. But he also said some of the disturbances at his events were caused by "bad dudes" who had been violent and disruptive, and added a salute to the local police, who he said had handled these situations well and deserved more support and respect.

The elevated tone of the Miami debate may have reflected the seriousness of the contest at this juncture. Tuesday brings the second biggest prize of the season: 99 delegates in the winner-take-all state of Florida. It is widely believed that Rubio must win his home state or fold his tent. Also winner-take-all is Ohio, where the same imperative hangs over incumbent Gov. Kasich.

But the other three states voting, Illinois, North Carolina and Missouri, rank fifth, 10th and 18th by population and size of convention delegations. Taken together, the five states on March 15 offer nearly as many delegates as were available on Super Tuesday, March 1.

At one point in the debate, the candidates were asked what they would do if none of them had the 1,237 delegates needed for a first ballot nomination.

Trump said he expected to have enough on the first ballot, adding that if he did not he would expect to support whichever candidate had the most. He called on the others to promise as much:

"I think, frankly, the Republican establishment, or whatever you want to call it, should embrace what's happening. We're having millions of extra people join. We are going to beat the Democrats."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Ron Elving is Senior Editor and Correspondent on the Washington Desk for NPR News, where he is frequently heard as a news analyst and writes regularly for NPR.org.