At one of the most complicated and contentious moments in the race for the Republican presidential nomination following a series of 11 rough-and-tumble debates, Thursday night’s face-off in Florida seemed suddenly to be an oasis of calm.
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And none of the candidates took it down a notch as much as GOP front-runner Donald Trump, whose outing was downright subdued compared to most of his past debate performances, on the cusp of crucial primaries in Florida and Ohio.
“So far I cannot believe how civil it's been up here,” Trump observed at one point during the forum, hosted by CNN, the Salem Media Group and the Washington Times, which took place at the University of Miami in Coral Gables.
Here are 5 moments that mattered at the final debate before voters head to the polls in five states next Tuesday:
1. Is Donald Trump Already Picking His Cabinet?
“I was with Dr. Ben Carson today, who is endorsing me, by the way, tomorrow morning,” Trump said.
Trump also made clear he’s making plans for potential cabinet nominees, and that Carson might find himself on the short list. Trump said he and Carson “spoke for over an hour” about education.
The GOP front-runner praised Carson for his “great handle on it,” declaring “I’m going to have Ben very much involved with education.”
2. Civility, For a Change
The debate began with one request from moderator Jake Tapper: “Please do not talk over each other. These are the rules to which you all agreed.”
Given the scene that unfolded last week -- with discussions of anatomy and name-calling -- it seemed like an impossible ask. But a half hour into the GOP debate, the candidates were all compliant.
The only thing discussed, much to the surprise of journalists on Twitter (and likely, the viewers as a whole) were policy issues. No talk of “hand size” (or other inappropriate comparisons), just a discussion on Social Security, the economy, free trade and taxes.
3. Trump Doubles Down On Comments About Islam
Tapper gave Trump a chance to clarify comments he has made that “Islam hates us.”
“Did you mean all 1.6 billion Muslims?” Tapper asked. “I mean a lot of them,” Trump replied.
But Rubio shot back. “There is no doubt that radical Islam is a danger in the world,” he said. “I can also tell you that if you go to any national cemetery, especially Arlington, you are gonna see crescent moons there.”
After Trump cited being politically incorrect, along with 9/11 and a “serious, serious problem of hate,” Rubio hit back again. “I'm not interested in being politically correct. I'm interested in being correct,” he said.
4. Bracing for a Contested Convention
“I think that whoever gets the most delegates should win," Trump said about the current bar to win the nomination outright -- getting a majority of the delegates, 1,237. “That's what I think.”
Trump needs to win 53 percent of the remaining delegates from this point to win the nomination -- a faster pace than he has been winning delegates so far.
Cruz, who trails Trump by 99 delegates, agreed with the frontrunner that they are the only ones who have a mathematical path to getting enough delegates for the nomination.
But he said unequivocally that he thinks a contested convention -- where there is no candidate with a majority heading into the convention -- would be a disaster. “We need to respect the will of the voters,” he said.
5. Trump Asked About Violent Rallies
Trump was asked about the recent violence at his campaign events and if he had done anything to “encourage this kind of violence.” Trump replied, “I hope not.”
Trump was asked specifically about the man who was arrested earlier today and charged with assault after sucker-punching a protester at his rally yesterday in North Carolina.
“I hope not,” Trump said. “I hope not. We have 25,000, 30,000 people, they come with tremendous love and passion for the country. You're mentioning one case, I haven't seen, I heard about it, which I don't like. When they see what's going on in this country, they have anger that's unbelievable.”
Trump continued, blaming that anger on his supporters’ “love” of country.
“It's a beautiful thing in many respects,” Trump said of that love. “But I certainly do not condone that at all.”