Donald Trump promised he was going to take a drastically different approach at Thursday's debate and play nice. To the surprise of pretty much everyone watching — including, it seemed, himself — he did exactly that.
"So far I cannot believe how civil it's been up here," Trump said about 30 minutes into the debate. Trump had reason for disbelief, especially after previous debates in which he has attacked his opponents as "Lil Marco" and "Lying Ted" and made a literal dick joke.
But last night's debate was two hours of an adult conversation between Trump and the three other remaining Republican candidates — Senators Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio and Governor John Kasich — on the merits of substance and policy. They discussed everything from trade to foreign policy to how they would reform the education system while avoiding the nasty, personal attacks that have become the norm of this election season.
The candidates refused to attack each other even when the CNN moderators handed them the opportunity to do so on a silver platter. When Cruz was asked what specifically he thought was wrong about Trump's vision for the Republican party, he responded that Trump "is right about the problems, but his solutions don't work."
Trump's decision to play nice further proved that his current mood is the compass that dictates the behavior of everyone else around him. Once it became clear that Rubio was safe from being bullied, he calmed down and offered measured, confident responses on issues like trade and immigration that played well with the audience at University of Miami.
When Rubio went after Trump for the frontrunner's recent comments that all of "Islam hates us," he managed to emerge with a strong response, earning big applause from the debate crowd.
"Trump says the things people want to say," Rubio said. "But presidents can't just say anything they want. It has consequences around the world."
"I'm not interested in being politically correct. I'm just interested in being correct," Rubio added, to loud cheers. "We are going to have to work together with people of the Muslim faith even as Islam faces a serious crisis within it."
Trump, on the other hand, stuck by his statement on Islam.
"There is tremendous hate," Trump said, referring to the religion of 1.6 billion people. "Where large portions of a group of people, Islam, large portions want to use very, very harsh means. … We better solve the problem before it's too late."
Cruz jumped in and called Trump's comments "incendiary" before criticizing him for his vow to stay neutral in negotiating the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Rubio desperately needed to have a good debate night, and he delivered, but it remains to be seen if that will be enough to save his near-dead campaign. He's currently in a distant third place behind Trump and Cruz for delegates and has only managed to win two of the 24 primary states that have voted so far. If he doesn't win Florida's winner-take-all primary next Tuesday, it will likely signal the end of his campaign altogether.
Many political observers were waiting to see if the moderators would ask Trump about the reports of violence at one of his rallies in North Carolina earlier on Thursday. In the last 30 minutes of the debate, CNN finally obliged.
Moderator Jake Tapper asked Trump about an incident at of his rallies on Wednesday in which a black protester was sucker-punched by a Trump supporter, which Trump brushed off as a consequence of the "tremendous passion" people bring to his events.
"They love this country," Trump said, referring to his supporters. "They don't like seeing bad trade deals, they don't like seeing higher taxes." Trump's answer came moments after Trump referred to the student-led protests in Tiananmen Square against the Chinese authoritarian government as a "riot."
Tapper followed up, arguing that some blame Trump's own rhetoric for violence at these rallies. "Some of your critics point to quotes you've made at these debates -- at these rallies including February 23rd, 'I'd like to punch him in the face,' referring to a protesters," Tapper said. "February 27th, 'in the good ol' days, they'd have ripped him out of that seat so fast.' February 1st, 'knock the crap out of him, would, you? Seriously, OK, just knock the hell. I promise you I will pay for the legal fees, I promise, I promise.'"
Trump responded by blaming violent protesters. "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. And we had a couple big, strong, powerful guys doing damage to people," Trump said.
So far, there is no evidence of violence by protesters at the Fayetteville rally. The man who punched a protester in the face was charged with assault.
Trump also introduced some drastic new policy proposals last night, which earned very little attention, at least on-stage. At one point he said he would "wipe out" the Islamic State by sending 20 to 30,000 US troops into Iraq and Syria (ground and air). "The answer is we have to knock them out," Trump said. "We have to knock them out fast. And we have to get back home."
A reporter asked Trump at a press conference Friday morning following the debate whether the American people should prepare for another long, foreign war under a Trump presidency. "We're going to be very quick. Very quick war. We don't use our power. Next question," he said.
Cruz flourished in the more serious atmosphere of last night's debate, after entering the stage as the only mathematical alternative to take on Trump in the primary. After winning two more primary states on Tuesday, Cruz now has 359 delegates behind Trump's 458. Rubio has 151 and Kasich has 54.
But even though the Republican field appeared like it was pulling itself together last night, the question of a brokered convention still hung over the debate stage. It is looking increasingly possible that no one candidate will be able to reach the magic number of 1,237 delegates required in order to win the Republican nomination.
Yet no one on the stage seemed to worried about the likelihood of a brokered convention — or at least they didn't show it. Cruz dismissed the possibility as a product of "fevered dreams" while Kasich warned "let's not get ahead of ourselves."
Trump said he's confident he'll be the nominee, but argued that the candidates and the media shouldn't be focusing on whoever gets some "random number" of delegates. That random number, 1,237 delegates, is a majority.
Follow Olivia Becker on Twitter: @obecker928