CORAL GABLES, Fla. — The four remaining Republican candidates politely argued over foreign policy, immigration, and Social Security benefits in a presidential primary debate Thursday evening, refraining from the sorts of personal attacks that have dominated some previous debates.
The candidates, speaking with a degree of decorum that seemed to surprise even those on stage, agreed on a crackdown on trade policies, tougher immigration laws, and state-based education policies.
“So far, I cannot believe how civil it’s been up here,” Donald Trump said 30 minutes into the debate.
Trump for most of the debate seemed controlled, speaking in a low and even tone, avoiding the smirks that have become a trademark of his earlier appearances, and making a visible effort to appear presidential. Provoked by Senator Ted Cruz, Trump resisted the bait, tapping his lectern lightly and staring forward stone-faced.
But with key nominating contests looming next week, the shift in tone meant the debate lacked pivotal, breakout moments that would radically shift the dynamics of the race in favor of Trump’s trio of rivals.
One of the more notable exchanges came during a discussion over how the country should treat Muslims. Trump, questioned about his recent comment that “Islam hates us,” was asked whether he was referring to all 1.6 billion Muslims.
“I mean a lot of them!” he said.
“Presidents can’t just say anything they want,” Senator Marco Rubio said. “It has consequences here, and around the world.”
The Florida senator referenced the number of Muslims who serve in the US military, something none of the other candidates on the stage has done, and recalled seeing the crescent moons — an internationally recognized symbol for Islam — on the tombstones at Arlington National Cemetery.
“I’m not interested in being politically correct. I’m interested in being correct,” Rubio said to loud applause. “We are going to have to work with people in the Muslim faith even as Islam itself faces a serious crisis within it of radicalization.”
Trump alone advocated killing civilian family members of terrorists.
“We better expand our laws or we’re being a bunch of suckers, and they are laughing at us,” he said. “They are laughing at us, believe me.”
With trade-battered Midwestern states coming up on the political calendar, the country’s policy toward imports and exports dominated the first portion of the debate.
“We don’t want to lock the doors and pull down the blinds and ignore the world,” said Governor John Kasich of Ohio. He said that problems arise when other countries break the trade rules, and the United States is unable to penalize them.
“When countries cheat and they take advantage of us, we have to blow the whistle,” Kasich said.
Trump offered a characteristically broader view, offering few specifics.
“Nobody knows the system better than me. I know the H1B. I know the H2B,” Trump said, referring to two contentious visa programs for guest workers.
Trump said those two programs are unfair, though he acknowledged that he uses the programs in his businesses.
The candidates debated five days before Florida, Ohio, and three other states vote in the Republican primary — a crucial day that will determine whether Trump is on a virtually unstoppable track to capture enough delegates for the nomination. The two-hour debate was sponsored by CNN and held at the University of Miami.
Trump over the past week has faced a barrage of attack ads, pointed criticism from rivals, and a drumbeat of negativity by mainstream GOP figures, including former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, the party’s 2012 nominee.
If Trump wins both Ohio and Florida on Tuesday, his rivals would be hard-pressed to prevent him from gaining the 1,237 delegates needed to secure the nomination heading into the Republican National Convention in July.
“One of the biggest political events anywhere in the world is happening right now, with the Republican Party,” Trump said in his opening statement.
“Millions and millions of people are going to the polls, and they’re voting. They’re voting out of enthusiasm, they’re voting out of love,” he added.
Trump predicted he would win the nomination outright — “I think I’m going to have the delegates. OK?” — while Cruz made the case that he was the only candidate who could stop the New York businessman.
A key difference came early on Social Security. Rubio said that he would slowly increase the retirement age. For someone his age, 44, the retirement age would increase to 68. Without such measures, Rubio said, “Social Security will go bankrupt and it will bankrupt the country with it.”
Trump staked out a position to Rubio’s left. “It is my absolutely my intention to leave Social Security the way it is,” he said, adding that he would find savings by clamping down on waste and fraud.
Trump stressed his pro-Israel credentials, noting that some of his grandchildren are Jewish and bragging that he was recently the grand marshal of the Israel Day Parade in New York City.
The author of “The Art of the Deal” seemed to relish the idea of negotiating a peace between Israel and the Palestinians as president. “I’m very, very pro-Israel,” Trump said.
“I’m a negotiator,” Trump mused. “Maybe we can get a deal. I think it’s probably the toughest negotiation of all time. But maybe we can get a deal done.”
Kasich quickly offered a counterpoint. “I don’t believe there is any long-term permanent peace solution,” he said.
If Rubio loses his home state, it would be the final blow after two weeks of struggles. This past Tuesday, he failed to win any of the four states — and in most he did not even meet the threshold to win any delegates.
He has emphatically declared that he would win Florida — and that the winner of Florida would become the GOP nominee. The debate Thursday night was held just 3 miles from Rubio’s home, and at the outset the crowd cheered far louder for him than anyone else.
During a town hall shown by MSNBC on Wednesday, Rubio said he regretted the tone his campaign had taken when he began making fun of Trump, mocking his makeup, his tan, the size of his hands, and even suggesting that he urinated on himself during a recent debate.
“At the end of the day, you know, that’s not something I’m entirely proud of,” he sad. “My kids were embarrassed by it, and if I had to do it again, I wouldn’t.”
“That’s not the campaign I want to run,” he added.
Rubio had one of his strongest debates of the campaign Thursday, forcefully making his case through substantive policy arguments and without personal attacks.
Trump — who said he would be endorsed on Friday by Ben Carson, who recently dropped out of the race — has teetered between conciliatory rhetoric about unifying the party and the kind of seat-of-the-pants, divisive dialogue that has become his trademark.
In the hours before the debate his campaign was consumed with two separate accusations of assault at his campaign events. In the first, which was captured on video and played over and over on cable television, a man was charged with punching a protester at a rally in Fayetteville, N.C.
In the second, a reporter at Breitbart News accused Trump campaign manager Corey Lewandowski of aggressively trying to pull her to the ground, bruising her arms in the process, while she tried to ask Trump a question after an event Tuesday.
“We have some protesters who are bad dudes. They do some bad things,” Trump said when asked about the atmosphere at his rallies. Asked whether his tone was triggering violent responses, Trump said, “I hope not. I truly hope not.”
Kasich has yet to win a state, but polls are showing him gaining ground, largely at Rubio’s expense. He appears better positioned in his home state of Ohio than Rubio is in Florida: A Fox News poll released Wednesday showed Kasich ahead of Trump in Ohio.
Kasich has avoided conflict at almost all costs, declining to criticize his opponents and hammering a sunny message about his record in Ohio and the importance of unified, functioning government.
The optimism seeped into his own assessment of his chances going forward.
“What’s true today,” he said, “is not necessarily what’s true tomorrow.”
Matt Viser can be reached at email@example.com.