The Republican presidential debate that took place Thursday night was a marked contrast to the one that happened just a week before.
No candidate discussed the size of his hands or other body parts, no one told another to calm down and breathe, and the personal insults were fewer and or at least more muted.
Instead, the four remaining Republican candidates spent much time on issues in the debate at the University of Miami, televised on CNN and moderated by that network’s Jake Tapper, with questions also coming from CNN’s Dana Bash, Stephen Dinan of The Washington Times, and Salem Radio host Hugh Hewitt.
The closest thing to a heated exchange came when Trump was asked if he wanted to clarify a comment he made to Anderson Cooper on CNN Wednesday — “Islam hates us” — and if he meant all 1.6 billion Muslims in the world.
“I mean a lot of them,” Trump said, then added, “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. And I will stick with exactly what I said to Anderson Cooper.”
Florida Sen. Marco Rubio objected, saying that while “there's no doubt that radical Islam is a danger in the world,” there are many patriotic American Muslims, plus Muslims in other nations who want to work with the U.S. to fight terrorists, but rhetoric like Trump’s interferes.
After Trump made a typical comment that he’s not interested in being “politically correct,” Rubio responded, “I'm not interested in being politically correct. I'm interested in being correct.” And that means the U.S. will have to maintain good relations with majority-Muslim nations to defeat ISIS and other terrorist groups, he said.
Trump faced another challenge on the tone of his campaign when Tapper brought up the arrest of a Trump supporter who punched a protester at a rally for the candidate in North Carolina last night. “Do you believe that you've done anything to create a tone where this kind of violence would be encouraged?” Tapper asked.
“I truly hope not,” Trump said, adding that he doesn’t condone violence, but he also said many of his supporters “have anger that's unbelievable” and that “we have some protesters who are bad dudes.”
Texas Sen. Ted Cruz took issue with another feature of Trump’s rallies, in which he asks supporters to raise their hands and pledge to vote for him. “I think that's exactly backwards,” Cruz said. “This is a job interview. We are here pledging our support to you [the American people], not the other way around.
Trump countered the pledge is just an aspect of the “good time” people have at his rallies. “That's why I have much bigger crowds than Ted, because we have a good time at mine,” he said. Some media commentators have likened the pledge to a Nazi salute, leading Trump to call the coverage “a disgrace.”
A foreign policy issue, the recent opening of relations between the U.S. and Cuba, was much on the minds of the crowd, as Miami is home to many Cuban emigrés, and two candidates, Cruz and Rubio, have Cuban-born parents.
“I would love the relationship between Cuba and the United States to change,” Rubio said. But it will require Cuba to change, at least its government. Today, it has not. … Cuba and its regime remains an anti-American communist dictatorship, helped North Korea evade U.N. sanctions. It's harboring fugitives of American justice, including people stealing our Medicare money and moving back to Cuba, all in exchange for nothing.”
Cruz said if he were president, he would once again sever diplomatic relations with Cuba, and he criticized Trump as supporting Democratic policies on Cuba and other nations. Trump responded that after 50-plus years of considering Cuba an enemy, it’s time to open relations, “but it's got to be a great deal for the United States, not a bad deal for the United States.”
Trump also touted his ability to make “great deals” when his rivals questioned his foreign policy credentials, as they said he’d leave in place the treaty limiting Iran’s nuclear capabilities — which many Republicans consider too weak — and that he shouldn’t try to negotiate a peace between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, as they consider the latter intractable. Trump responded that he could make a much better deal with Iran and that while being strongly pro-Israel, he could bring the Palestinian Authority to the table and come up with a pact.
On domestic issues, Tapper noted that Miami Mayor Tomas Regalado, a Republican and a Rubio supporter, had challenged the candidates to acknowledge the reality of climate change — which has caused flooding in South Florida — and pledge to do something about it as president.
Rubio responded, “There's never been a time when the climate has not changed.” He said he would support efforts to mitigate the effect of rising sea levels, “but as far as a law that we can pass in Washington to change the weather, there's no such thing.” Laws that have been proposed to cut down on carbon emissions would “devastate our economy” and would have no environmental impact, as other countries, like China and India, would continue polluting.
Ohio Gov. John Kasich countered that it’s possible to “have a strong environmental policy at the same time that you have strong economic growth and they are not inconsistent with one another.” He said carbon emissions in Ohio have been reduced by 30 percent in recent years, and that he supports developing all sources of energy — fossil fuels, nuclear, solar, wind, and more.
The debate also saw some talk of international trade. Tapper challenged Trump, saying, “Your critics say your campaign platform is inconsistent with how you run your businesses, noting that you've brought in foreign workers instead of hiring Americans, and your companies manufacture clothing in China and Mexico.” Trump responded that he takes advantage of existing laws — “I’m a businessman and I do what I have to do” — but knows better than anyone else how to change them.
Cruz, Rubio, and Kasich said they supported what they characterized as free but fair trade deals, and Cruz made the frequent Republican argument that U.S. regulations are driving business overseas.
On the subject of people coming to the U.S., there was some criticism of the H1B visa program, which allows U.S. companies to bring in foreign workers for a specified period of time on a non-immigrant visa; Rubio said some companies have abused it. And the candidates generally promised to be tough on illegal immigration, with Cruz pledging to end sanctuary cities, among other things.
Kasich, though, said that while he favors a secure border, he would support a path to legalization, although not citizenship, for undocumented immigrants already in the U.S. As for legal immigration, he said, “I believe in immigration, but it has to be controlled. 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.”
The debate also saw some bashing of President Obama, with claims that he’s weakened the U.S. military and America’s standing in the world, although this took up less of the time than usual. There was no talk of LGBT issues, although Cruz promised in his closing statement to protect “religious liberty,” usually code for the liberty of those opposed to LGBT equality on religious grounds.
The candidates also discounted projections of a contested convention. Republican National Committee chairman Reince Priebus addressed the audience before the candidates took the stage, asking for party unity at a time when many are put off by front-runner Trump.
“Can you at least agree with me without question that any one of these four gentlemen would be a world better than Hillary Clinton or a socialist in Bernie Sanders?” he said. He received mild applause.
Both Republicans and Democrats will vote in primaries Tuesday in Florida, Illinois, Missouri, North Carolina, and Ohio.
For more on the debate, see The Washington Post’s annotated transcript here.