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Highlights from the Republican presidential debate: How the candidates handled themselves — and each other

Republican presidential candidate, businessman Donald Trump, center, speaks as candidates, Marco Rubio, left, and Ted Cruz, right, listen during the Republican presidential debate sponsored by CNN, Salem Media Group and the Washington Times at the University of Miami,  Thursday, March 10, 2016, in Coral Gables. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee)

Republican presidential candidate, businessman Donald Trump, center, speaks as candidates, Marco Rubio, left, and Ted Cruz, right, listen during the Republican presidential debate sponsored by CNN, Salem Media Group and the Washington Times at the University of Miami, Thursday, March 10, 2016, in Coral Gables. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee)

The final Republican debate ahead of the Florida primary was hosted by CNN, Salem Media Group and the Washington Times on Thursday at the University of Miami. CNN's Jake Tapper moderated, with help from Dana Bash, Hugh Hewitt and Stephen Dinan. Here's your watercooler recap.

What's that? A substantive discussion on the issues?

So much for a schoolyard brawl and vulgar references to body parts. The debate got off to a civil start — by the standards of past debates — but a substantive one with discussions about trade policy, immigration, education and what to do about Social Security. The candidates passed up chances to attack each other. It may not be splashy TV, but it's the discussion many voters have been waiting for. Even Democrats, who have been loving the high-flying antics, took note. "Wow is this a different debate than last week's. Calm. Substantive. So far," David Axelrod said on Twitter.

Trump shifts tone, makes argument for November

A kinder, gentler Donald Trump took the stage Thursday night at the University of Miami, clearly shifting his focus toward the general election. "We're all in this together," he said, all but shrugging off Ted Cruz comparing him to Hillary Clinton. He differed from the other Republicans in insisting he did not want to touch Social Security benefits and with his objection to GOP free trade orthodoxy. "I am different (from other Republicans) in one primary respect, and that's trade," said Trump, the populist front-runner. "We have had terrible trade deals, terrible negotiators."

Cuba question comes up, Rubio owns the answer

It was a remarkable sight: Two of the four candidates running for the Republican presidential nomination are sons of Cuban immigrants. When Cuba came up, it showed another area where Trump veers from GOP orthodoxy. He supported opening relations with Cuba but wants a "better deal." Marco Rubio got the best of the exchange, drawing big laughs over Trump fretting that Cuba might sue the United States for reparations. "If they sue us in a court in Miami, they're going to lose." Rubio had a strong night, especially compared to his widely panned, overly negative performance last week.

Each candidate's evening, summed up in four paragraphs:

Ted Cruz, 45, U.S. senator from Texas, elected in 2012.

Quote: "Fifty-nine years ago, Florida welcomed my father to America as he stepped off the ferry boat from Cuba onto Key West. He was 18. … He was in the freest land on the face of the earth. ... This election is about … the freedom America has always had and making sure that that freedom is there for the next generation."

Best moment: Tough hit on Trump: "The question you ought to be asking is who is willing to take on Washington? … If you have a candidate who has been funding liberal Democrats and funding the Washington establishment, it's very hard to imagine how suddenly this candidate is going to take on Washington."

Biggest misstep: Cruz tried to take on Trump and did so effectively several times but not as effectively as Rubio. The Florida senator effectively highlighted Trump's shallow answers on Cuba and Social Security.

Rating the performance: Cruz had another strong night, showing substance and confidence throughout. He persuasively made the case that the race really is between him and Trump. They are the only candidates with the potential to win the nomination without a contested convention.

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John Kasich, 63, governor of Ohio, elected in 2010. Former congressman representing Ohio.

Quote: "We hear about taking on Washington. I took on Washington and I won. I actually got the budget balanced when I was a member of the Congress, the chairman of the budget committee."

Best moment: At end of the debate he made a strong appeal to people who are struggling to find jobs, have college debt and other worries. Instead of shouting about it, he said, fix it. The measured response appeals to people who just want results.

Biggest misstep: Nothing especially, but on the other hand, he was clearly not a focal point on stage. Kasich also gave a less than strong response about the long odds he faces in getting the delegates needed to win the nomination.

Rating the performance: The Ohio governor gets stronger as the race narrows, and he had another good debate, pressing the advantage that he has accomplished things. But unless something changes, Kasich isn't doing anything to alter his status. Perhaps he'll play a spoiler to Rubio in Florida, drawing enough support to deny him a win.

———

Marco Rubio, 44, U.S. senator from Florida, elected in 2010. Former speaker of the Florida House. Lawyer.

Quote: "I know that a lot of people find appeal in the things Donald says because he says what people wish they could say. The problem is, presidents can't just say anything they want. It has consequences, here and around the world."

Best moment: Drew a contrast with Trump's heated rhetoric toward Muslims. Rubio said not all Muslims hate America and when challenged by Trump, replied with a standout line of the night, "I'm not interested in being politically correct. I'm interested in being correct."

Biggest misstep: Fell back on talking points when asked about climate change, saying the climate is always changing — dodging man's role — and no law could affect that. It may be good GOP politics but even in his party, views are shifting. The Republican mayor of Miami says the issue needs to be addressed, CNN pointed out.

Rating the performance: Wisely dropping his attack dog mode, Rubio instead tried to show his superiority over Trump on issues and he largely succeeded. He was back to his sharp self with informed, clear answers on a range of issues from Social Security to foreign policy and Cuba. But the major question is, will it matter?

———

Donald Trump, 69, real estate mogul, TV personality.

Quote: "We're taking people from the Democratic Party, we're taking independents, and the whole world is talking about it. … I think frankly the Republican establishment, or whatever you want to call them, ought to embrace what's happening."

Best moment: Anytime Trump reminds voters he's the only Republican not beholden to donors, it's a good moment for him: "Nobody is going to be taking care of me. I don't want anybody's money. … We're going to go out to bid in virtually every different facet of our government. We're going to save a fortune."

Biggest misstep: "I know people from New York City who happen to be Jewish people," Trump weirdly boasted in an effort to stress his commitment to Israel. Impressive! He has met Jews in New York City.

Rating the performance: Trump had some rocky moments where he once again offered up vague pablum on complex issues. He also has a recurring problem in making clear that he does not admire "strong" leaders oppressing their people. But nothing Thursday night looked likely to shift the overall trajectory of the race.

Highlights from the Republican presidential debate: How the candidates handled themselves — and each other 03/10/16 [Last modified: Friday, March 11, 2016 8:37am]
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