The four remaining Republican candidates for president gathered in Miami, Florida, on Thursday night for the 12th Republican debate of the 2016 election cycle. The debate is the last one before voters go to the polls Tuesday for pivotal winner-take-all contests in Ohio and Florida.
After a series of increasingly chaotic Republican debates, this latest encounter was surprisingly polite. At times, it seemed as if Trump's rivals had run out of ideas for toppling the frontrunner and were merely going through the motions of running against him.
We won't know who really won this debate until voters go to the polls Tuesday — Marco Rubio in particular is hoping a win in his home state of Florida will reinvigorate his flagging campaign. But in the meantime, here are the candidates and causes that came out of the night looking best — and worst.
Winner: Donald Trump
Donald Trump is leading the race, so he just needed a draw in Thursday's debate to maintain his status as the frontrunner. And none of Trump's rivals managed to lay a hand on him. Indeed, they seemed to come on to the debate stage without any clear strategy at all.
For most of the campaign, Rubio has avoided personal attacks in favor of bland, optimistic speeches. Then a couple of weeks ago, as it became clear that Trump was pulling ahead of the pack, Rubio began deriding Trump as a con man with a bad spray tan and small hands. That strategy produced disappointing results in last week's Super Tuesday primary. So tonight Rubio went back to giving bland, optimistic speeches and largely ignoring his more popular rival.
Ted Cruz and John Kasich didn't attack Trump much either. Maybe attacking him would have been ineffective, or even backfired on candidates who tried it. But not attacking him virtually guaranteed that Trump would maintain his frontrunner status.
VIDEO: Marco Rubio slams Donald Trump on Cuba
Winner: Ted Cruz
Ted Cruz's strategy is to be the last non-Trump candidate standing, which will force the Republican establishment and conservative movement to rally behind him. And that strategy seemed to be working well enough on Thursday night.
At one point, the moderators asked a series of questions about what would happen if no candidate secured a majority of delegates and the race had to be decided at this summer's Republican convention. And everyone onstage seemed to agree that only two candidates — Cruz and Trump — had a serious shot at capturing the nomination.
"There are only two of us that have a path to winning the nomination, Donald and myself," Cruz said. The camera framed the pair, underscoring the message that if conservatives wanted to stop Trump, they'd better get on the Cruz train.
Cruz's oratorical skills served him well, as he gave crisp, clear answers, deriding Trump as a guy who talked tough but wouldn't actually deliver on a conservative policy agenda.
"The answer is not to yell, 'China bad, Muslim bad,'" Cruz said at one point. "One concern I have with Donald is although his language is quite incendiary, when you look at his substantive policies on Iran, he has said he would not rip up this Iranian nuclear deal."
It's not obvious that Cruz's Iran strategy makes any more sense than Trump's, but rhetorically it set him up well as the real conservative alternative to Trump.
Thursday night's debate had a very different tone. Candidates generally waited their turn to speak, kept their criticisms focused on issues, and avoided making comments about each other's hands or genitalia. Donald Trump was so pleased by the debate that he described it as "elegant."
While the tone of the debate was civil, the substance of the debate was anything but. Trump was asked about the many incidents in which his supporters have responded violently to protestors, including an incident this week in which a Trump supporter threw an unprovoked punch at a protestor as he walked by.
Instead of unambiguously condemning this kind of violence, Trump fell back on one of his uglier talking points.
"They love this country," he said. "They don't like seeing bad trade deals, higher taxes, they don't like seeing a loss of their jobs where our jobs have just been devastated. There is some anger. There's also great love for the country. It's a beautiful thing in many respects."
Trump does eventually get around to saying that he doesn't condone violence by his supporters, but by going on about how "beautiful" their "passionate" acts of violence are he pretty clearly sends the opposite signal.
Believe it or not, that wasn't even Trump's most outrageous assault on civility Thursday night. That would be this moment, when he described the peaceful 1989 pro-democracy protests in China's Tiananmen Square as a "riot":
Normally elections are about who wins. But for many conservatives, the most important question is whether they can figure out a way to stop Donald Trump from winning. They've rallied around the #NeverTrump hashtag in the hope that they could find someone — anyone — to take down the thrice-married reality star.
But conservatives seemed no closer to that goal after Thursday's debate than they did before, as conservative pundits like Tim Carney glumly noted:
I don't think they pulled it off. I think we're screwed.— Tim Carney (@TPCarney) March 11, 2016
The fundamental problem is that #NeverTrump isn't on the ballot. While there are a lot of conservative intellectuals and Republican political operatives who are passionate about stopping Trump, there aren't a lot of voters who think that way. Most voters want to vote for the guy they think will make the best president, not against the guy who will make the worst commander in chief.
And while the debate helped cement Cruz's status as the leading non-Trump candidate, it didn't seem to get him any closer to actually beating Trump. Neither Cruz nor Kasich nor Rubio had the kind of breakthrough night that would rally conservatives behind their respective banners. Neither did any candidate have the kind of humiliating night that would hasten his departure from the race. So the non-Trump vote is going to continue to be split three ways, improving Trump's chances of victory in Tuesday's primaries.
Loser: Trade deals
The Republican Party has generally been seen as the party of free trade. Last year, President Obama relied heavily on Republican leaders in Congress to pass Trade Promotion Authority over the opposition of many congressional Democrats.
But that pro-trade sentiment was hard to find among candidates on the debate stage on Thursday night. John Kasich, an establishment-friendly candidate you might expect to be friendly to trade deals, argued that "we want to have free trade but fair trade" — a slogan generally associated with trade skeptics. He then promised to crack down on countries that were cheating on their trade commitments.
"We're getting killed in international trade right now," said Cruz, an opponent of President Obama's Trans-Pacific Partnership deal. "We're getting killed because we have an administration that's doesn't look out for American workers, and jobs are going overseas."
The candidate who came closest to defending trade deals was Rubio. "I'm in favor of deals that allow us to bring down those tariffs so America can sell things to people all around the world," he said, citing US trade with Colombia as an example of a favorable trade agreement. Yet Rubio then said that "you've seen trade deals in Mexico less than promising in some aspects."
Needless to say, Donald Trump also sounded a skeptical note on trade deals, defending a proposal to slap a 45 percent tariff on foreign goods to get foreign countries like China to agree to more favorable trade deals.
Presumably, Republican candidates are reluctant to defend trade deals because they believe rank-and-file Republicans aren't enthusiastic about them. That's an ominous sign for Obama, who will need support from congressional Republicans to pass his Trans-Pacific Partnership deal. And it's not a great sign for Republican unity either.