New York Times
By Jonathan Martin and Patrick Healy
March 10, 2016
After 11 adversarial debates, the two chief antagonists to Donald J. Trump on Thursday night largely abandoned their strategy of brutally attacking him, choosing instead to use their final face-off before next week’s round of big Republican primaries to project gravitas and champion conservative positions on trade, jobs and Israel.
Senator Marco Rubio of Florida, whose candidacy is on the line in his state’s primary on Tuesday, passed up easy chances to challenge Mr. Trump on immigration and foreign visas, and he stopped insulting the front-runner after his recent jabs backfired. Senator Ted Cruz of Texas, who is running second to Mr. Trump in many states, stuck to policy at first but gradually turned tougher against Mr. Trump, eventually saying he would be a disaster as the Republican standard-bearer.
“If we nominate Donald Trump, Hillary wins,” Mr. Cruz said.
But much of the debate was so subdued that Mr. Trump was prompted to say, “So far, I cannot believe how civil it’s been up here.”
He was eventually challenged over his temperament, his harsh language about Islam, and recent violence at his campaign rallies, but he also talked more about policy than he has in past debates, saying, apparently for the first time, that he would consider sending up to 30,000 American ground troops to fight the Islamic State in the Middle East.
It was as if Mr. Trump’s rivals had decided, after so many months, that there was no upside anymore in trying to beat him at his own game. Gone were the heated interruptions, the name-calling, and, most remarkably given Mr. Trump’s advantage, the wave of attacks about his checkered business history. On Thursday night, his rivals moved on.
The political stakes were higher than at any of the previous debates because this was one of the last high-profile, widely seen opportunities for Mr. Trump’s rivals to sow doubts about his candidacy and to slow his march to the nomination. Mr. Trump is ahead in public opinion polls in Florida, Illinois and North Carolina; the race appears closer in Ohio, with some polls indicating that John Kasich, the governor there, has a small lead. Missouri also votes next week.
The newly sober nature of the Republican race, for a night at least, was clear from the first exchanges over trade, a major issue in Ohio, as the four contenders largely agreed that trade deals were needed to protect American workers. Mr. Trump was challenged over hiring foreign workers for some of his businesses, which he both defended and minimized — remarks that were less surprising than the fact that none of his rivals attacked him over it, as they did in a debate last week.Mr. Trump went unchallenged as he boasted that as a businessman, he was best positioned to negotiate trade deals in America’s favor.
“Nobody else on this dais knows how to change it like I do, believe me,” he said.
He acknowledged that, despite his hard-line talk on immigration, he uses foreign workers at some of his businesses by exploiting the nation’s immigration policies, particularly H1-B visas for foreign workers.
“I’m a businessman, and I have to do what I have to do,” Mr. Trump said. He added that he “shouldn’t be allowed” to have access to foreign labor, saying, “It’s very bad for workers, very unfair to our workers.” He said he would suspend H1-B visas for at least one or two years.
Mr. Rubio pointed to the need for United States businesses to be able to sell goods abroad. “We have to have access to the hundreds of millions of people in the world today who can afford to buy things,” he said.
The greatest pressure was on Mr. Rubio, who is facing the prospect of a humiliating loss in his own state on Tuesday. After suggesting on Wednesday that he regretted lobbing juvenile insults at Mr. Trump last month, Mr. Rubio only occasionally disagreed with him in the debate. It was a signal that if his campaign is nearing the end, he intends to exit the race on a higher plane.
In something of a valedictory, he told the story of an older supporter in the Miami area who despite recently undergoing surgery was holding a Rubio sign outside an early-polling center.
“That gentleman has not given up on me, and I am not going to give up on him,” Mr. Rubio said.
When Mr. Rubio did take Mr. Trump on, he did it sideways, acknowledging that Mr. Trump had tapped into a vein but warning that his style would have repercussions.
“I know that a lot of people find appeal in the things Donald says because he says what people wish they could say,” Mr. Rubio said. “The problem is presidents can’t just say anything they want, because it has consequences here and around the world.”Mr. Trump’s temperament, a subject of deep anxiety among Republican Party leaders, came under scrutiny: He was challenged over his statement on Wednesday that “Islam hates us,” but he kept his quick temper in check and responded with a minimum of defensiveness.
On the same day that footage emerged of an individual at a Trump rally punching a protester, Mr. Trump said of the episode, “I don’t like it,” adding that “they have anger that’s unbelievable.”
“There’s also great love for the country,” he said. “It’s a beautiful thing in many respects. But I certainly do not condone that at all.”
Mr. Cruz seemed to mock his vague tough talk, saying at one point, “The answer is not simply to yell ‘China bad, Muslims bad.’ ” But Mr. Trump, again, did not respond in kind.
Mr. Trump had the air of a winner, noting that he was set to receive an endorsement on Friday from a former rival, the retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson, and suggesting that more voters were taking part in the Republican primaries than ever because of him.
“They’re voting out of enthusiasm; they’re voting out of love,” Mr. Trump said, a rejoinder to news reports about violence breaking out at his rallies. “We are going to beat the Democrats, we are going to beat Hillary or whoever it may be, and we’re going to beat them soundly.”
The debate spotlight fell in a new way on Mr. Kasich, who has emerged as a major obstacle to Mr. Trump’s sweeping next Tuesday’s primaries.
While the two men barely sparred, Mr. Kasich did look for subtle opportunities to present himself as a strong, conservative executive with experience balancing budgets and tackling foreign policy challenges. When Mr. Trump tried to defend his remarks calling the Chinese government “strong” when it violently ended the democracy movement in Tiananmen Square in 1989, Mr. Kasich forcefully differed.
“I think that the Chinese government butchered those kids,” he said, “and when that guy stood in front of — that young man stood in front of that tank, we ought to build a statue of him over here when he faced down the Chinese government.”
Mr. Rubio and Mr. Cruz, who have been fierce adversaries for months and are now facing off in Florida, where they both have family roots, had moments where they teamed up against Mr. Trump. They were especially hard on him over Israel, challenging him over his comments that he would be a “neutral guy” in negotiating the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians.
While Mr. Cruz spoke fiercely on Israel’s behalf, perhaps mindful of Jewish voters in Florida, Mr. Rubio was more polite toward Mr. Trump, suggesting that perhaps he misunderstood that being neutral could undercut Israel’s interests and security.
Mr. Trump insisted that Israel would be an “absolute priority” for him but that his focus would be to broker a historic peace deal between Israelis and Palestinians and to be an arbiter at the negotiating table.
“Very, very pro-Israel, nobody is more pro-Israel, but I would like to give it a shot,” he said.
Mr. Trump’s commanding victories on Tuesday in Mississippi and Michigan underscored the durability of his candidacy and gave him a lift after he suffered a pair of losses and closer-than-expected victories last weekend. But he netted only 15 more delegates on Tuesday than Mr. Cruz.
With less invective flying around, Mr. Trump talked more about policy than he has in past debates. He said he would do “everything within my power” not to harm the financial stability of Social Security. He excoriated Common Core standards and said he would minimize federal influence over education. And, demonstrating once again how he is obliterating the old rules of Republican politics, he proclaimed, days before a Florida primary, that he generally agreed with President Obama that the embargo on Cuba should end.
“After 50 years, it’s enough time, folks,” he said.
Mr. Rubio and Mr. Cruz heatedly denounced what they described as appeasement of the Castro government, drawing applause from the pro-embargo local Republican audience. But Mr. Trump was unmoved.
“I’d make a deal” with Havana, he said, “but it’s got to be a great deal.”
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