Something strange happened during Thursday night’s GOP presidential debate — it was actually civil and reserved.
There were no mentions of body parts and or mudslinging between Donald Trump and the other candidates — all which punctuated the Republican presidential stage just a week ago.
The first half of the debate was policy-driven, talking about immigration, trade and tariffs, Social Security and more.
Marco Rubio had home field advantage in the CNN debate from Miami, Fla., and delivered a strong debate performance. But it might be too little too late as Florida senator tries to stave off Donald Trump in his backyard. And with no punches thrown against the presumptive front-runner, Trump didn’t leave damaged.
Ohio Gov. John Kasich’s low-key style that was a welcome relief for some during the other higher-octane debate instead caused him to fade into the background. He needs to win his home state on March 15th to keep his long-shot White House hopes alive.
And Texas Sen. Ted Cruz continued to make the argument he’s the only candidate with a real chance of stopping Trump, even as the real estate mogul struck a unifying tone as he urged the GOP to come together behind him.
Here were some of the top moments.
Trump’s general election pivot
There were no insults or bombast from the GOP front-runner as he kicked off the debate. Instead, he made an argument to the so-called GOP establishment — unite behind me, and we can win.
“Millions and millions of people are going out to the polls and they’re voting. They’re voting out of enthusiasm. They’re voting out of love,” he argued. “We’re taking people from the Democrat Party. We’re taking people as independents, and they’re all coming out and the whole world is talking about it. It’s very exciting. I think, frankly, the Republican establishment, or whatever you want to call it, should embrace what’s happening.”
He kept a positive tone throughout the debate, and at the end of the night told CNN the whole affair had been very “elegant.”
Political correctness on Islam
Trump was still pressed on his controversial statements by moderator Jake Tapper, specifically some of his heated rhetoric on Muslims and his comments to CNN on Wednesday that “Islam hates us.”
“Did you mean all 1.6 billion Muslims?” Tapper asked.
“I mean a lot of them. I mean a lot of them,” Trump maintained. “There’s something going on that maybe you don’t know about, maybe a lot of other people don’t know about, but there’s tremendous hatred. And I will stick with exactly what I said to Anderson Cooper.”
Rubio pushed back, arguing that such heated rhetoric is harmful to the country at home and abroad.
“The problem is, presidents can’t just say anything they want. It has consequences, here and around the world,” he said, pointing to the many Muslims serving in the U.S. armed forces.
“Marco talks about consequences. Well, we’ve had a lot of consequences, including airplanes flying into the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and could have been the White House. There have been a lot of problems,” Trump argued back. “Now you can say what you want, and you can be politically correct if you want. I don’t want to be so politically correct. I like to solve problems. We have a serious, serious problem of hate.”
But Rubio jabbed back, with one of his strongest lines of the debate: “I’m not interested in being politically correct. I’m not interested in being politically correct. I’m interested in being correct.”
Trump takes both sides of the issues
Save for those few hits from Rubio, Trump was barely criticized or even pushed by his GOP rivals, even as he took some seemingly contradictory positions.
Trump admitted that as a businessman he’s used the HB1 guest worker program for highly-skilled workers as a businessman but that he “shouldn’t be allowed to use it.”
He boasted that “there’s nobody on this stage that’s more pro Israel than I am” but said he’d tell the Palestenians he was neutral so he could try to broker a Middle East peace deal.
On Social Security, he criticized Democrats for not working to save the entitlement program but then said it was his “absolute intention to leave Social Security the way it is. Not increase the age and to leave it as is.”
Rubio did press him somewhat on that, questioning his math.
“The numbers don’t add up,” Rubio argued. “You know, when I ran for the Senate in 2010, I came out and said we’re going to have to make changes to Social Security, and everyone said that’s the end of your campaign. In Florida, you can’t talk about that, but people know that it’s the truth here in Florida.”
Cuba in focus in Florida
Rubio — who, like Cruz, is the son of Cuban immigrants — got his biggest cheers of the night when he pushed back again on Trump over Cuba.
Trump said he was “somewhere in the middle” between President Obama’s move to open diplomatic relations with Cuba and Rubio’s skepticism over their civil rights record.
“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,” the businessman argued. “Right now, everything, every single aspect of this deal is in Cuba’s favor.”
Rubio fought back, saying the country had to become free and democratic before any “deal.”
“Here’s a good deal — Cuba has free elections, Cuba stops putting people in jail for speaking out, Cuba has freedom of the press…And you know what? Then we can have a relationship with Cuba. That’s a good deal,” Rubio said to wild applause.
Violence at Trump rallies
Near the end of the debate, Tapper finally pressed Trump on the elephant in the room — news about an attendee at a rally of his in North Carolina who was charged after punching an African-American protester in the face.
“This is hardly the first incident of violence breaking out at one of your rallies,” Tapper said, asking Trump whether he believed he had “done anything to create a tone where this kind of violence would be encouraged?”
“There is some anger,” Trump said, noting he hadn’t seen the specific incident yet. “There’s also great love for the country. It’s a beautiful thing in many respects. But I certainly do not condone that at all, Jake.
Tapper listed off comments Trump had made himself at his rallies about protesters though, saying he’d “like to punch him in the face” and “knock the crap out of him.”
“We have some protesters who are bad dudes, they have done bad things. They are swinging, they are really dangerous and they get in there and they start hitting people,” Trump argued, but reporters who have been on the trail with the GOP candidate they had never seen protesters throwing punches.
None of his GOP rivals criticized Trump on the issue though.
“Washington isn’t listening to the people. And that’s the frustration that is boiling over,” Cruz responded.
“Jake, here’s what I think is happening,” Kasich interjected. “There are people out there who are worried about their jobs. They’re worried that somebody is going to come in and tell them they’re out of work and they’re 54 years old and they don’t know where they’re going to get another job, a man and a woman.”
“On the issue of anger. Yes, people are angry. Of course they’re angry. Every institution in America has been failing us for the better part of 20 years or 30 years,” Rubio said. “But leadership is not about using the anger, leadership is about using the anger to motivate us, not to define us.”
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