MIAMI — After 11 adversarial debates, the two chief antagonists to Donald Trump largely abandoned their strategy of brutally attacking him Thursday night, 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.
Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas and Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida passed up easy chances to challenge Trump on trade and immigration and mostly refrained from going on the offensive.
The debate’s first hour was so subdued and policy-focused that Trump was prompted to say, “So far, I cannot believe how civil it’s been up here.’’ But Cruz finally began accepting invitations from the moderators to criticize Trump, though his jabs lacked the intensity of earlier debates.
It was as if Trump’s rivals had decided, after so many months, that there was no upside anymore at trying to beat him at his own game.
The celebrity showman has proved a master at delivering cutting asides, memorable insults and crude remarks, and his rivals tried without success to bully the bully and beat him at his own game.
On Thursday night, they moved on, come what may.
The CNN moderators gamely tried to provoke conflict, baiting Trump at one point by noting that Rubio had suggested his “numbers don’t add up’’ and later interjecting to point out that Cruz had likened Trump to Hillary Clinton.
But neither Trump nor his opponents showed much of an appetite for blood. What gentle attacks came were mostly limited to policy.
“He’s right about the problems,’’ Cruz said. “But his solutions don’t work.’’
The political stakes were higher than at any of the previous debates because this forum was one of the last high-profile, widely seen opportunities for Trump’s rivals to sow doubts about his candidacy and to slow his march to the nomination.
If Trump scores decisive wins across the five populous states voting Tuesday, he will be well positioned to clinch the Republican nomination before the party’s convention in July. There are 165 total delegates at stake in the winner-take-all primaries in Ohio and Florida, while Illinois, Missouri and North Carolina together offer 193 delegates, distributed proportionally. Trump is ahead in public 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.
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 the Ohio primary, as the four Republicans largely agreed that trade deals were needed to protect American workers and create jobs in the United States. Trump was challenged over the hiring of 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 his hiring record, as they did in a debate last week.
Instead, Trump went unchallenged as he boasted that, as a businessman, he was best positioned to negotiate better trade deals in America’s favor.
“Nobody else on this dais knows how to change it like I do, believe me,’’ he said.
Trump seemed almost to invite attacks from his rivals, acknowledging that, despite his hard-line rhetoric 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,’’ 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.
But none of Trump’s rivals pounced on that admission. Their withholding of fire appeared to reflect a calculation that they had gained little from trading insults with Trump. Acknowledging the minimal enthusiasm for free trade among rank-and-file Republican primary voters, they handled the issue gingerly and sought to turn the focus to how much trade could benefit American workers and consumers.
“I absolutely will blow the whistle and begin to stand up for the American worker,’’ Kasich said. “But we don’t want to lock the doors and pull down the blinds and leave the world — because, frankly, if we do that, prices will go up, people will buy less, other people will be out of work.’’
Rubio pointed to the imperative that U.S. businesses 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 Rubio, whose candidacy all but collapsed in the contests held this week, and who is facing the possibility of a humiliating loss in his home state, Florida, on Tuesday.
He entered the debate after saying that he regretted lobbing juvenile insults at Trump in recent weeks, a strategy that backfired spectacularly on Rubio, whom many in the Republican mainstream had seen as their best hope in the race.
While Rubio targeted Trump on Thursday night, he did not do so with the gusto that he showed earlier. His modulated tone and manner were signals that if his campaign was nearing the end, he wanted to exit the race on a higher plane. When Rubio did decide to take on Trump, he did it sideways, saying that Trump had tapped into a vein but 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,’’ Rubio said. “The problem is presidents can’t just say anything they want, because it has consequences here and around the world.’’
Trump’s temperament, a subject of deep anxiety among Republican Party leaders, came under unusually intense scrutiny during the debate. Trump was challenged over his statement Wednesday that “Islam hates us,’’ but in a departure from his much-criticized performance at last week’s debate, he kept his quick temper in check and responded with a minimum of defensiveness.
Trump even let some barely veiled shots go without responding. Cruz seemed to mock Trump’s vague tough talk, saying, “The answer is not simply to yell ‘China bad, Muslims bad.’’’ But Trump did not respond in kind.
When his rivals did challenge him, Trump did not exactly turn the other cheek, but he was plainly trying to show discipline and make clear to Republicans that he was ready to focus on Clinton. He projected a certain inevitability to his nomination, noting that he was set to receive an endorsement Friday from a former rival — 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,’’ Trump said, a pointed 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.’’
Rubio and 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 Trump, who is leading in the Florida polls. They were especially hard on him over Israel, challenging Trump over his comments that he would be a “neutral guy’’ in negotiating the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians.
While Cruz spoke fiercely on Israel’s behalf, perhaps mindful of the many Jewish Republican voters in Florida, Rubio was more polite toward Trump, suggesting that perhaps he misunderstood that being neutral could undercut Israel’s interests and security.
Trump insisted that Israel would be an “absolute priority’’ in a Trump administration 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.
“I would like to give it a shot,’’ Trump said about a possible peace deal. “Very, very pro-Israel, nobody is more pro-Israel, but I would like to give it a shot.’’
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 Tuesday than Cruz, who captured Idaho and finished second in the other states casting ballots.