About thirty minutes into the Republican debate Thursday night, Donald Trump's eyebrows rose out of sheer surprise. "I cannot believe how civil it's been!" he exclaimed, making that GIF-ready "Can you believe it?" face he does so well.
The Donald had a point: The debate—the 12th of the Republican primary race—was clean: no punches, no personal attacks, and no penis measurements. It was a remarkable show of restraint among candidates who, until now, haven't hesitated to dive head first into the political gutter. Clearly, the collective cringe over last week's dumpster-diving debate forced Trump's remaining rivals to realize that they would never be able to out-brawl the reality-TV star, and so might as well try to act mature.
In the first hour of the debate, hosted by CNN at Florida's University of Miami, the issues echoed those posed to the Democratic candidates during their own debate in Miami this week. The Republican contenders fielded questions on trade, national security, immigration reform, and other surprisingly substantive topics, rehashing their views on guest worker programs, job outsourcing, and K-12 education with a couple of anti-Obama platitudes, but surprisingly little vitriol toward one another.
Trump, in particular, seemed more subdued—a gesture of détente, or perhaps just fatigue, from a man who has basically blown up the party of the presidential nomination he's seeking. The rivals surrounding him followed suit, adopting a tone of civility in one final attempt to derail the frontrunner at the polls.
Florida Senator Marco Rubio, who needed—and for the most got—a strong night Thursday, turned his attacks away from Trump's hands and "con man" personality, and toward his platform policy proposals, essentially arguing that the frontrunner's plans don't actually add up. At one point, Trump was asked if he really did believe "Islam hates us," and Rubio quickly criticized his brash attitude, to much applause, "I'm not interested in being politically correct," the Cuban-American senator told the debate audience. "I'm interested in being correct."
For the most part, it worked well for Rubio, whose campaign needs a home state victory in Florida's primary next week just to stay in the race. Smartly, he appealed to Miami's substantial bloc of Cuban-American voters Thursday night, dominating Trump on questions about US diplomatic ties with Castro & Co. He also pledged to save Miami from sinking, while also toeing the conservative line on climate science. Meanwhile, Rubio's own policies never received much scrutiny, since Trump and the other candidates essentially just ignored him all night.
Trump, when he could bothered, turned most of his attention toward Texas Republican Senator Ted Cruz, who was the first to attack the frontrunner Thursday night. But his attacks, as far as Trump attacks go, were lackluster, devoid of any references to "Lyin' Ted," or the fact that the Texas senator is generally unlikeable. The only hint of hostility came after Trump did a brief impersonation of Cruz, before announcing loudly, "I've won 10 states!"
Mostly, though, Trump kept his opinions to himself—a sign that either something had gone terribly wrong, or that Trump, like the rest of us, is ready for these nightmare debates to be over.
Asked whether the Republican primary race could stretch on all the way until the convention in Cleveland this summer, Trump reassured debate viewers that he would have no problems locking up the nomination beforehand. Rubio and Ohio Governor John Kasich, on the other hand, both of whom may not make it another week, deflected the question, entertaining the possibility of a drawn out primary as a justification for their flailing candidacies.
Cruz, however, sided with Trump, concurring that the GOP elites would not take the crown away from a candidate who had amassed the delegates needed to win the nomination. Throughout the night, he made the case that it would be he, not The Donald, claiming that top prize in Cleveland. To that end, Cruz desperately tried to poke holes in Trump's peculiar brand of billionaire populism, going after the frontrunner again for his donations to Hillary Clinton and other Beltway Democrats, and also for his positions on free trade.
"We've got to get beyond rhetoric of 'China bad' and actually get to, how do you solve the problem?" Cruz said during a protracted exchange on the latter subject. "This solution would hurt jobs and hurt hardworking taxpayers in America."
But the best line of the night came at the end, during the Texas Republican's closing remarks. "What an incredible nation we have that the son of a bartender, and the son of a mailman, and the son of a dishwasher," Cruz said, gesturing to Rubio, Kasich, and then himself. "And," he added, without missing a beat, "a successful businessman can all stand on this stage competing and asking for your support."
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