Who Won the Republican Debate?

March 11, 2016, 4:30 AM UTC

The Republican presidential circus traveled back through the looking glass on Thursday night into a world where candidates distinguish themselves over how to ensure Social Security’s solvency and a competitive trade policy, rather than the size of their hands and other appendages.

The substance-heavy debate felt like a palette cleanser after a Jerry Springer-inflected clash last week that embarrassed the entire party. The most telling sign of the lowered temperature in Miami: frontrunner Donald Trump, who has remained a cartoonish provocateur even as he’s pulled away from the field, turned in perhaps his tamest debate performance to date.

It could be the first signs of a prevent defense as Trump sees the nomination nearing his grasp. He made it roughly 100 minutes into the two-hour event before mentioning his poll numbers, surely a personal record in restraint. And in the concluding moments of the event, Trump even made a plea for party unity (“be smart and unify”), with the implicit message that at this point in the race, it amounts to an appeal for rallying around his candidacy.

“We’re all in this together. We’re going to come up with solutions. We’re going to find the answers to things,” he said. “And so far I cannot believe how civil it’s been up here.”

Then again, Trump will be Trump. He doubled down on his Wednesday comment to CNN that Islam — all of it — hates the United States. “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,” he said. “And I will stick with exactly what I said to Anderson Cooper.” He sidestepped an opportunity to condemn the violence that’s become a hallmark of his campaign rallies. And he repeated his praise for Vladimir Putin as a “very strong leader for Russia” before attempting to qualify that, unbelievably, by adding, “strong doesn’t mean good.”

Trump is no master of policy nuance, and his flimsy grasp of the issues beyond anything that could fit on a bumper sticker showed through, clearly, again. But the measured tone of the debate also meant that Trump’s remaining rivals for the nod avoided ganging up to attack him on his checkered history as a businessman and political freelancer. GOP establishment leaders are now frantically marshaling their donor class to fund attack ads highlighting that bio. Yet days before make-or-break primaries next Tuesday, the candidates who hope to benefit from that assault declined to use their last, best platform to echo the message. On that score alone, Trump can call the night a win.

In a brief interview with CNN moments after the debate wrapped up, Trump suggested this will be his last one. If he sweeps Florida and Ohio next week, his march to the nomination would start to look irreversible. And as other candidates disappear from the stage, the showdowns would only grow more treacherous for him.

Thursday’s debate previewed how at times, as the non-Trump candidates tried to knock the billionaire celebrity off-balance by squaring off with him on the issues. Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, trying to repair the damage he inflicted on himself mudslinging with Trump in their last meeting, returned to form as a serious guy.

“I know that a lot of people find appeal in the things Donald says because he says what people wish they could say,” Rubio said after Trump’s comments on Islam. “The problem is, presidents can’t just say anything they want. It has consequences, here and around the world.”

Trump replied that the September 11 attacks themselves were consequences and he doesn’t want to be “so politically correct.” And Rubio responded with one of his sharpest lines of the night. “I’m not interested in being politically correct. I’m interested in being correct,” he said, going on to argue that the U.S. needs to work with Muslim partners in the Middle East to confront common enemies.

Later, after a back-and-forth between Rubio and Trump over reengaging diplomatically with Cuba (Rubio vigorously opposes the Obama administration’s decision to do so, while Trump has embraced it), Texas Sen. Ted Cruz jumped in to endorse Rubio’s argument. “I think this exchange actually highlights a real choice for Republican primary voters,” Cruz said. “When it comes to foreign policy, do you want to continue on the same basic trajectory as the last seven years of the Obama foreign policy? When it comes to these deals, Cuba and Iran, they were negotiated by Hillary Clinton and John Kerry. There’s a real difference between us. Donald supported Hillary Clinton and John Kerry.”

The two senators also struck similar positions against Trump on the need to tweak Social Security to get the program on sounder footing. Rubio pointed to his plan to raise the retirement age for younger workers and impose means testing. Trump vowed not to touch the program but instead to “make this country rich again; to bring back our jobs; to get rid of deficits; to get rid of waste, fraud and abuse.” Here again Cruz followed Trump and echoed Rubio, arguing the program is “careening towards insolvency, and it’s irresponsible. And any politician that doesn’t step forward and address it is not being a real leader.” He called for adjusting the rate of growth in benefits. That wonkish dynamic characterized the night, with Trump apparently hewing to an endure-to-win strategy.

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