After past raucous rhetoric, civility rules at GOP debate
MIAMI -- Nothing to see here but statesmen.
On the debate stage Thursday night in Miami, the four Republican presidential candidates calmly discussed their policies - a striking turnaround from the shouted insults of their previous few match-ups.
With just days until make-or-break voting in the home states of two candidates, front-runner Donald Trump's opponents may be more desperate than ever, but they didn't let it show. The tone was so sedate that Trump exclaimed, "So far I cannot believe how civil it has been up here!"
And that may have particularly disadvantaged Ohio Gov. John Kasich, who until now had been the standout candidate for his debate civility.
Here are a few more takeaways from the 12th GOP debate this presidential primary season:
A FRONT-RUNNER AND A GENTLEMAN?
Trump's expression of surprise about the civility of the debate could have been a moment of self-reflection. The New York businessman had been the most R-rated of the candidates on previous debate stages - even talking about the hands, among other things, in Detroit last week.
He has inspired dozens of leading Republicans to proclaim "Never Trump" and pelt him with millions of dollars in attack ads. This time, he spoke repeatedly of "love" and urged Republicans to "embrace" him and the movement he has inspired. When asked about violence that has broken out at many of his rallies, a reflective-looking Trump swallowed and said he certainly hopes he's not doing anything to incite violence.
"There is some anger," Trump said of those who attend his rallies. "There's also great love for the country. It's a beautiful thing in many respects. But I certainly do not condone that at all."
Trump is continuing a push to portray himself as ready for November's general election. That shift began March 1, when he decisively won many of the states that voted on what's known as Super Tuesday.
Kasich, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio and Texas Sen. Ted Cruz largely refused to directly attack Trump, even when moderators tried to tee up tussles.
When asked if he was comparing Trump to Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton, a twinkle-eyed Cruz said simply, "I will let Donald speak for himself." Rubio similarly demurred, parroting back a moderator's rap that Trump's plan to cut enough "waste, fraud and abuse" from Social Security to save the program didn't add up.
Cruz's most stinging remark toward Trump came at the end of the night, and had the feel of a joke: "What an incredible nation we have that a son of a bartender (Rubio), a son of mailman (Kasich), a son of a dishwasher (himself) and a successful businessman (you-know-who) can all stand on this stage competing and asking for your support."
TRUMP ON MUSLIMS
Trump's delivery may have been softer, but some of his words were hard-edged as ever - especially when he defended comments made in a recent CNN interview when he said, "I think Islam hates us."
Asked if he meant all Muslims around the world, and not just those he and the others have referred to as radical Islamic terrorists, the plain-spoken Trump said, "I mean a lot of them." When Rubio lightly tried to take on Trump's comments, saying that "presidents can't just say anything they want," Trump was ready with his reply.
"Now you can say what you want, and you can be politically correct if you want. I don't want to be so politically correct," Trump said. "I like to solve problems. We have a serious, serious problem of hate."
TRUMP AS TRUMP-STOPPER
In a memorable moment, Trump made the case that, if elected, he'd work hard to stop business executives like himself.
He was referring to immigration visas for highly skilled workers - something his real estate company has used repeatedly over the years. "I shouldn't be allowed to use them," he shrugged, saying they're "very, very bad for workers."
He added of the program, "We should end it" and put a pause on green cards for foreign workers while government studies the issue.
That echoed his opening comments of the debate, when he said nobody knows "the system" better than him. As president, he would know how businesses take advantage of the laws and change them as necessary, he said.
RUBIO STANDS OUT
Rubio had several memorable debate lines - and in a good way this time.
After serving as chief Trump attack dog in Houston and Detroit, the Miami version of Rubio delivered only policy zingers. "I'm not interested in being politically correct. I'm interested in being correct," Rubio said, before saying Trump had been wrong to paint Muslims as dangerous.
And when Trump didn't dramatically distance himself from President Barack Obama's move to normalize relations with Cuba, saying only he "would want to make a strong, solid, good deal," Rubio, the son of Cuban immigrants, took the topic and ran: "Here's a good deal. Cuba has free elections. Cuba stops putting people in jail for speaking out. Cuba has freedom of the press."
Rubio punctuated the indirect attack on Trump: "Then we can have a relationship with Cuba. That's a good deal."
There was no question the home-state senator had an adoring debate audience. The remaining mystery, to be solved Tuesday: How do Florida voters feel about him?
Follow Julie Bykowicz on Twitter at: http://twitter.com/bykowicz