Taking their last best shots before next week’s crucial primaries, Republican presidential rivals engaged in a surprisingly civil but tense debate Thursday night, with three of them hoping to knock billionaire front-runner Donald Trump off his trajectory toward the GOP nomination.
They tussled over government spending, how to combat terrorism and how to treat Muslims. Most polls show Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida and Ohio Gov. John Kasich trailing Trump in their home states, which are among the five states and one U.S. territory with primaries on Tuesday. More than 1 million people have already cast ballots in Florida.
Losses on their own turf would gravely — and perhaps fatally — wound their chances at the nomination.
Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, buoyed by a recent spate of primary victories, escalated his crusade to position himself as the conservative Trump alternative that the GOP establishment desperately craves, even though many mainstream Republicans aren’t particularly fond of him.
The debate, though, was devoid of the personal — and anatomical — asides that Trump and Rubio engaged in during last week’s debate in Detroit. Instead, the heat between the candidates was lowered to a simmer.
Rubio sought to be a kinder, gentler debater, a sea change from the personally confrontational combatant in last week’s debate. Trump, in turn, sought to strike a more diplomatic pose in hopes of quelling questions about whether he has the temperament to be president.
“So far I cannot believe how civil it’s been up here,” said Trump when, a half-hour into the debate, there had been no personal attacks among the four.
They were aided by questions that focused on more substantive issues such as business and H1B visas, which allow a limited number of foreign high-tech workers to fill jobs that have a shortage of American workers.
Trump was understated and low key.
Trump opened the debate by touting his newly won endorsement from Ben Carson, the famed neurosurgeon who recently dropped out of the GOP race. Carson is scheduled to formally endorse Trump on Friday.
Rubio and Cruz helped Trump appear more presidential for most of the first hour of the debate, only lightly criticizing him for not providing details of his proposals.
Rubio and Trump did tangle over Trump’s remarks that “Islam hates us.” Rubio condemned the remarks and noted that many Muslims serve honorably in the U.S. military. Trump, he said, “says what people wish they could say,” but the senator added that a president’s words ripple across the globe and can inflame anti-American sentiment needlessly and dangerously.
“You can be politically correct if you want,” Trump said to Rubio. “I don’t want to be so politically correct. I want to solve problems. There is tremendous hate.”
Trump found himself under fire on several fronts, including his support for Israel. But he insisted he was the most pro-Israeli candidate onstage, noting he once served as grand marshal for the Israel parade in New York.
Trump, who was pressed by moderator Jake Tapper on whether he’s contributed to violence at his rallies, said he didn’t condone the violence and that his supporters were angry about “bad trade deals” and the loss of jobs.
Confronted with his own quotes that he’d “like to punch” a protester in the face or “knock the crap” out of another, Trump said his large rallies attracted some bad people.
“We have some protesters who are bad dudes. They are swinging; they are really dangerous,” he said. “Big, strong, powerful guys doing damage to people.”
Kasich said it’s more important to unite the country than to promote violence at political rallies.
Kasich didn’t mention presidential Trump specifically, but said that it’s important to tell Americans that their problems can be solved.
Kasich said candidates can “prey” on people’s fears, or offer them solutions. He preferred to do the latter.
Rubio and Trump politely disagreed over how to salvage Social Security, with Trump saying he wouldn’t change the program but would wipe out “waste, fraud and abuse.” He also suggested cutting some foreign aid, to Germany, Saudi Arabia and Japan.
“I”m going to negotiate real deals and bring wealth back to our country,” Trump said.
Rubio, who supports gradually raising the retirement age for younger Americans to save money, noted that Trump’s numbers would make up a small fraction of the amount needed to stabilize Social Security.
“Both parties have taken far too long to deal with this,” Rubio said, warning that if Social Security is not stabilized its growth will bankrupt the country.
Trump did not rise to the bait, simply promising that a Trump presidency would spend money more wisely.
Kasich benefited for the second debate in a row by being asked questions early in the debate.
On the impact of trade on American workers, Kasich said, “My family worked in the steel industry, not with a white collar. I understand their plight.”
The Ohio governor stood by his support for a comprehensive overhaul of the nation’s immigration laws that would include a guest worker program. Without immigration, he said, “The simple fact of the matter is I wouldn’t be standing here.”
“I’d be maybe running for president of Croatia if we didn’t have immigration,” he added.
Cruz on attack
Cruz initially took a gentle approach in going after Trump on government spending. But he quickly returned to attacking Trump for contributing money to Democratic political candidates.
“If you’re fed up with Washington, the question you ought to be asking is who’s willing to take on Washington,” Cruz said. “If you have a candidate who has been funding liberal Democrats and funding the Washington establishment it’s very hard to imagine how this candidate is going to take on Washington.”
Florida is the biggest prize of Tuesday’s five-state round of voting, and all 99 of the state’s delegates will go to the winner.
In all, 367 Republican delegates will be at stake, with voting also occurring in Illinois, Missouri, North Carolina, Ohio and the Northern Mariana Islands.
In the race for delegates, Trump has 458, Cruz 359, Rubio 151 and Kasich 54. It takes 1,237 to win the Republican nomination for president.
This report includes material from The Associated Press.