At Toned-Down GOP Debate, a Drift Toward Trump
CORAL GABLES, Fla. — A Republican debate here Thursday seemed less like a pivotal turning point in the presidential race than a moment of transition toward an increasingly likely, previously unimaginable outcome.
On one of the biggest stages in politics, the GOP wrestled with accepting an unorthodox and divisive standard-bearer, while that candidate, Donald Trump, urged his skeptics to “be smart and unify” around his candidacy.
“I think, frankly, the Republican establishment, or whatever you want to call it, should embrace what's happening,” Trump said in his opening remarks, citing the new voters he has drawn to the party, among them Democrats and Independents.
As Trump has dominated primary contests and racked up delegates relative to his rivals, a stark and perhaps unprecedented divide has opened between Republicans who would support him as their nominee and those who would not. Some candidates and party loyalists have threatened to take their fight to the convention to stop him, if not to the general election, too.
Introducing the program on the debate stage Thursday, Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus sought to quiet such chatter while sending a message to party activists and candidates alike.
“We are going to support the nominee of our party, whoever it is, 100 percent,” Priebus said. After all, he implored, wouldn’t any of the Republican candidates “be a world better than Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders?”
The party chief’s entreaties came just a week after Mitt Romney, the GOP’s most recent presidential nominee, said he would cast a write-in vote in November rather than vote for Trump. Meanwhile, party donors and activists have mounted a serious and well-funded campaign to take Trump down, if at the eleventh hour.
In the debate hall, Priebus’s remarks received a smattering of applause from the crowd of party donors, campaign supporters, and other Republicans.
The candidates, too, seemed to take a more congenial tone, with less fire aimed at Trump than in previous debates and few of the petty insults that have marked this campaign. Even Trump, whose many taunts have become something of his personal trademark, mostly reined in his confrontational impulses while onstage. He seemed, at times, surprised by his own restraint.
"So far, I cannot believe how civil it's been up here,” Trump observed 35 minutes into the debate.
That dynamic was all the more remarkable because of the high stakes in this meeting, the last debate before the pivotal Ohio and Florida primaries Tuesday. Both winner-take-all contests will feature a favorite son with his candidacy on the ropes: Gov. John Kasich in Ohio, and Sen. Marco Rubio in Florida.
Rubio benefited from the debate’s staging at the University of Miami, just a few miles from his home, and he received a warm round of applause when he walked onstage. The polls show Rubio with little home-field advantage, however; he’s running second in the polls to Trump, who owns a weekend mansion up the road in Palm Beach.
Rubio’s strategy for catching Trump at the wire was revealed by his choice of venue for a Wednesday rally in Hialeah. It’s a working-class area with a dense Cuban-American population. A key component of Rubio’s strategy in Florida is to turn out these voters, particularly in Miami-Dade County. Earlier this week, Rubio’s campaign purchased a 15-minute slot on a popular Spanish-language talk radio station, during which a senior adviser to Rubio took calls from supporters.
In a potential boost to Rubio, he scored one of his strongest moments in the debate Thursday when he clashed with Trump over renewed relations with Cuba, which Trump said he supports in principle and Rubio firmly does not.
For Kasich, with an eye on Ohio voters, the crucial focus was on free trade agreements, which he has supported in the past. But Kasich tempered his message in light of Trump’s successful populist appeals.
“My position has always been, we want to have free trade, but fair trade,” Kasich said.
Trump, for his part, acknowledged that he has diverged on this issue from the Republican norm. “I am different in one primary respect and that’s trade,” he said. “I feel that we have had horrible negotiators, horrible trade deals. The jobs in this country are disappearing and especially the good jobs.”
On this, as with immigration and other issues, Trump has gradually brought the party closer to him. In the debate hall Thursday, that shift was apparent. There, what has taken place in this election cycle was on full display: a Republican Party somehow inextricably linked with Donald Trump.