8:15 p.m. PST: Donald Trump’s media team clearly told him to act more presidential; like pornography, voters know it when they see it. He might have been tipped off to play up his business acumen and play down the charismatic-leader bit this time. The end result: fewer cheap shots and GIFs, sparring that stayed above groin level.

This debate, however, might also slow the production of panicked visa applications and border-control crises—between the U.S. and Canada.

In closing the least dirty of the dozen GOP debates, conduct-wise at least, candidates mostly stuck to their customary scripts. Ohio Gov. John Kasich played up his campaign’s positivity in signing off for what may well be his final big-tent event in the 2016 election cycle. Florida Sen. Marco Rubio fared well enough, but soon may bid farewell (as The Onion’s augurs clearly believe). Texas Sen. Ted Cruz again tried to position himself as an outsider, although he couldn’t be closer to the Washington or the Wall Street establishment.

A subdued Trump signed off with a special art-of-the-deal message to an RNC unable to thwart him: “Be smart and unify,” he said. * * *

8:02 p.m. PST: Truthdig columnist and political correspondent Bill Boyarsky covers the presidential hopefuls’ discussions about climate change, a topic barely touched upon at Republican debates (because no need to talk about what isn’t happening):

Finally, climate change came up. [CNN moderator Jake Tapper read a question from Miami Mayor Tomás Pedro Regalado] about climate change, and the fact that scientists say it’s happening, since his city is being slowly engulfed.

Rubio said the climate is changing—because the climate always changes. “As far as a law in Washington to change the weather, there is no such thing,” he said. Quite a calm attitude for a father raising his family on the Florida flood plain. Told again that the mayor acknowledged it is the scientific consensus, Rubio said there is no law that would change this.

Kasich said, “We do contribute to climate change.” He said we can have jobs and deal with climate change. He believes in solar power and renewables.

Trump and Cruz were not asked the same question, so the most important issue didn’t get the attention it deserved. Trump exhibited his unfortunate penchant toward authoritarianism, saying the Chinese had been strong on Tiananmen Square, and that Vladimir Putin has been a strong leader for Russia. He added that “strong” doesn’t mean “good.”

But he also said of the guy who sucker-punched a protester at one of his rallies that people are really angry over unemployment, other economic ills and many injustices. He said the media coverage of his supporters raising their right hands in a pledge to support him was a “disgrace.”

This debate showed a milder version of Trump, a post-primary Trump who looked as though he had the nomination sewed up and was thinking of the contest with Hillary Clinton, and who peered at his competitors in a condescending, slightly bored manner.

* * *

7:46 p.m. PST: Again CNN moderator Jake Tapper called Trump on the carpet with follow-up questions—this time about incendiary rhetoric and outbreaks of violence against protesters at some of the GOP front-runner’s rallies.

Does the tone of Trump’s campaign invite violent behavior? “I hope not, I truly hope not,” Trump replied soberly.

Then came another round of Trumpsplaining: When certain of his supporters see what’s going on in the U.S., “they have anger.” However, “I certainly do not condone” the violence, he insisted, talking as though violence at campaign stops was like the weather —it happens, and is beyond his influence.

Also in play in Trump’s response was a deflection tactic: Go pro-police.

Another: Blame the protesters. “We have some protesters who are bad dudes,” Trump said. “They are really dangerous. Big, strong, powerful people doing serious damage.”

Tapper gave the others their word in edgewise.

Here’s Cruz: “We need to show respect to the people. We need to remember who it is we’re working for.” (Polite applause.)

Cruz’s deflection tactic: Obama-bashing. “How many of you all feel disrespected by Washington?” he asked the audience.

Cruz got in a dig at Trump for asking supporters at a recent central Florida stump stop to raise their hands and pledge to vote for him—a gesture that the “Today” show, among other media outlets, compared with a variation on the Nazi salute in World War II. “We are here pledging support to you, not the other way around,” Cruz said, adding he’s interested only in the kind of hand-raising that presidents do when they’re sworn in. (Scattered polite applause.)

Yet another Trump deflection tactic: blame the “Today” show. “What they did is a disgrace,” he said.

Kasich delivered another measured answer: Americans are experiencing some volatile emotions because they’re worried about their jobs, their kids’ careers, their retirement. There are two ways to treat the problem, he offered: prey on their feelings,Trump-style, or go into problem-solving mode.

Deflection tactic: None.

Rubio chimed in: Of course Americans are angry. Assuming his best presidential pose, he advised Americans to use the anger “to motivate us, not to define us.”

Deflection tactic: Pro-police talk, plus telling patriotic yarns about his pro-America grandpa from Cuba. * * *

7:24 p.m. PST: Boyarsky comments on what is sure to be one of the most cited conversations from this GOP go-round:

Trump is the unyielding foe, most vociferous critic of Islam, different than the others on the debate stage. “I mean a lot of them,” said Trump when asked if all Islam hates us.

Rubio was asked if Republicans weren’t better than this. He told about a missionary couple who were protected overseas by Muslims. “If you go to any national cemetery you will see crescent moons there.”

Trump said you can be politically correct, but “we have a serious, serious problem of hate.” He said, “We had better solve the problem before it is too late.” He said on the possibility of killing families of suspected terrorists, “we had better expand our laws.” Rubio said we will have to work with Muslims who are not radicals. “We are going to have to work with people in the Muslim faith, even as they face a serious crisis.”

Kasich said if we are going to defeat Islamic State, “we are going to need these countries.” He said at the end of the day, “We will have to bring the world together, the civilized world.”

Cruz said he was opposed to targeting the families of suspected terrorists. As Cruz goes after him, Trump is starting to look mad. Especially when he was asked about him being “neutral” in the Arab-Israeli conflict.

Polls indicate a majority of Republican primary voters agree with Trump on Islam, if not on Israel.

* * *

7:05 p.m. PST: Tapper queried Trump about his radical statements about Islam, asking if the billionaire businessman believes “Islam hates America.”

“I mean a lot of them. I mean a lot of them,” Trump said of Muslims around the world, ominously suggesting that “there’s something going on that maybe you don’t know about and a lot of other people don’t know about.”

Pressed further, Trump played the 9/11 card and characterized himself as action-oriented rather than bigoted. “There have been a lot of problems; I like to solve problems,” he said. “We have a serious, serious problem of hate. There is tremendous hate.” As Trump spun it, that hate was coming at him, not from him.

Rubio spotted his opening, warning that presidents “can’t say anything they want. It has consequences around the world.” Trump countered with one of his most popular campaign canards—political correctness—and pitched himself as the only straight-talker among the four presidential hopefuls who had made it through a dozen debates.

“I’m not interested in being politically correct—I’m interested in being correct,” Rubio shot back, pointing out all the countries and actors in the Muslim world the U.S. will have to work with in order to combat militant groups like Islamic State. That one drew applause from Rubio’s hometown crowd.

Tapper pressed on, asking about another of Trump’s most incendiary campaign-trail comments: Would he, or the other candidates, order the military to target the families of terrorists?

“As far as the families are concerned, and as far as the law is concerned, we have a law right now that doesn’t allow waterboarding,” while Islamist terrorists use extreme violence, Trump said.

“We have to obey the laws, but we have to expand those laws,” he continued, claiming that the U.S. has to be able to fight on an equal footing “or we are being a bunch of suckers, and they are laughing at us.”

Standard-issue Trump. How about the others?

“No, of course not,” said Rubio. “And we don’t have to in order to defeat terrorists.” Instead, the best agencies and a rebuilt military would be mobilized. And oh, Guantanamo Bay would be back in play.

Cruz? “No, of course not, we’ve never targeted innocent civilians, and we’re not going to start now,” the Texas senator said. * * *

6:55 p.m. PST: Boyarsky weighs in on the first half-hour of the debate:

If Donald Trump’s target voters are the blue-collar working families of America, he strengthened himself mightily in the debate and made Cruz and Rubio look like penny-pinching congressional Republicans. Rubio wants to raise the Social Security retirement age and cites all the congressional Republican demands for cuts in safety net programs.

Trump said he will do everything in his power to not touch Social Security: “Leave Social Security as it is” and “you have a long time to go” to figure out improvements, and “I want to make our country rich again so we can afford it [Social Security].”

Rubio said Trump’s numbers don’t add up. Eliminating fraud is not enough. We can’t just tiptoe around this — if we do not do this, “we will have a debt crisis” in government as well as Social Security. Trump complained about lack of pharmacy bids or military bids on contracts. “We are going to save a fortune” under a Trump administration, he promised.

Cruz said Social Security is careening toward insolvency. He said all benefits will be protected for recipients, but younger workers will have to put money into 401k accounts.

And what a polite debate.

* * *

6:35 p.m. PST: Trump substantiated reports that Ben Carson is backing his campaign by declaring that Carson will endorse him on Friday.

Immigration, foreign aid, Common Core, keeping American jobs from foreign occupation and tax reform were bandied about in the first half-hour of the exchange. Cruz, who is literally married to Wall Street, said that “too many candidates are doing the bidding of Wall Street” and positioned himself, in his first big attack on Trump, as the candidate best equipped to stand up to the Washington establishment.

Trump brushed off Cruz as an unpopular Washington lightweight who’d like nothing more than to be a bigger player on Capitol Hill, before congratulating himself for taking the high road. “So far I cannot believe how civil it’s been up here,” he said.

Here to cut through the noise is Boyarsky, with his first dispatch for this debate:

For all of you looking for the usual Republican foul-mouthed brawl, the opening minutes were very calm as they engaged in a discussion over trade deals. It was sort of stately. Very un-Republican. Cruz wants to protect workers, tax imports, et cetera. All of them favor having business being able to bring in cheaper workers, outsourcing, but they got into complicated provisions of the law, too hard to follow.

Kasich said the 11 million should get a path to citizenship. This is a sharp break from the others. Trump said we should take a couple of years to take a look at the situation, something new. Cruz said he would cut off all federal welfare payments to sanctuary cities. You wouldn’t know that all of them were highly conservative candidates who would change government drastically.

* * *

6:10 p.m. PST: All four candidates shined up their opening remarks with optimistic imagery and calculated delivery.

Kasich, as he had in previous debates, pointed to a bright Republican future in which rising tides lift all Americans’ ships by sending “money, power and influence to where you live.” He called for a “new partnership to restore the spirit of America and the best century we’ve ever had.”

Rubio, cheered as a hometown hero by a vocal contingency in the audience, shared Kasich’s happy vision: “I believe this is the most important election in a generation,” he began. “What’s at stake is our identity as a nation and as a people” after 200 years of exceptionalism, he said. Like the Ohio governor, he heralded a “new American century” in which the people are at their freest and most prosperous.

Trump appeared to get the memo that he was going to dial down the bombast for the occasion, but he still talked a big game. Announcing that “one of the biggest events of the Republican Party” was underway—that would be his GOP-crashing campaign— Trump advised the Republican base, “or whatever you call it,” to “embrace” the chaos he has single-handedly visited upon their ranks. As for the Democrats? “We’re going to beat them soundly,” he vowed.

Cruz, who like Rubio is of Cuban heritage and thus symbolically represents a sizable swath of the Miami electorate, invited voters to see him through that lens in his opening comments, as he had done while campaigning around town the day before. * * *

5:52 p.m. PST: Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus made a cameo, and a pitch for party unity, by inviting conservatives in the audience to agree with him that any one of the four candidates on the debate stage would be a world better than Hillary Clinton or “socialist” Bernie Sanders. * * *

5:40 p.m. PST: CNN’s Anderson Cooper filled air time with correspondents and commentators, wondering if the rumor that candidates will try to class things up this time, after dropping the bar far below the belt in the last debate, is even “frankly possible.” Our prediction, wholly unsupported by polling data: No. * * *

5:22 p.m. PST: CNN reported that Carson is about to endorse Trump, his former opponent. * * *

5:05 p.m. PST: More bleak predictions for Rubio were making the rounds in mainstream media by Thursday afternoon. A pre-debate survey of the news wires cast the Florida senator’s prospects for an eleventh-hour course correction at just this side of nil.

To wit, we offer the following abridged array of Rubio-dooming headlines:

1) “A politically wounded Rubio confronts questions about quitting the race at hometown rally” (The Washington Post)

2) “Why Marco Rubio Is Florida’s Not-So-Favorite Son” (Bloomberg Politics)

3) “Trump Beats Rubio in Another Florida poll” (Politico)

4) “Rubio should quit the race” (The Boston Globe)

5) “The Marco Rubio post-mortem: How a supposedly ready-made GOP nominee crashed and burned” (Salon)

6) “Sorry, Marco Rubio, it’s time to fold” (The Washington Post)

7) “Top Rubio Supporters: Trump attacks have backfired” (CNN)

So, it’s clearly thumbs-down for Rubio from the pundit class. That’s not the best note on which to start a unanimously declared swan song, but as other 2016 candidates such as Bernie Sanders, Jill Stein and every Republican who ended up on the sideshow stage for an “undercard” debate discovered, media outlets are heavily invested in the monied machinery of an American election system in the throes of a hostile corporate takeover. * * *

Their numbers are dwindling, and as Trump picks up momentum and more primary wins, so may be the hopes of his GOP rivals for the White House in 2016.

Foremost among them Thursday evening will be Rubio. The Florida senator will face intense scrutiny—as the candidate upon whom the Republican establishment’s hopes have been hung (out to dry), as the one moderate whom party members have backed to sack Trump, and as Miami’s native son—when he and the three remaining GOP contenders (Trump, Cruz and Kasich) meet in the southern Florida metropolis for their 12th televised debate.

But in an election season that has defied several laws of political physics, it’s far from a given that a hometown setting guarantees any advantage for Rubio, either during Thursday’s debate at the University of Miami or in the crucial state’s primary election on Tuesday.

Still, as host network CNN noted in the lead-up to Thursday’s meet-up in Miami, Rubio isn’t yet willing to give up his crumbling ground:

Thursday’s debate here comes just five days ahead of the next week’s “Super Tuesday 3,” when there are more than 350 delegates up for grabs, including in winner-take-all contests in Florida and Ohio.

Both Trump and Rubio are predicting that they will be victorious here in the Sunshine State, and fully aware of how much is riding on Florida. For Trump, a win here would fuel his growing momentum and further grow his delegate lead; for Rubio, losing his home state could be the death knell for his campaign.

Cruz and Kasich will also take the debate stage at a crucial moment in their campaigns. Cruz is aggressively trying to convince the Republican Party to coalesce around him, arguing he is the only candidate other than Trump capable of reaching 1,237 delegates; Kasich, who still has not won a single state, is eying his home state of Ohio with fresh optimism after a new poll this week showed him ahead of Rubio nationally. A Fox News poll released Wednesday showed Kasich leading Trump in Ohio, but the front-runner topping Rubio in Florida.

CNN further imperiled Rubio’s chances by framing him as a formerly scrappy upstart now teetering on the brink of tapping out, which isn’t an unfair assessment given his poor performance on Super Tuesday. But before he goes the way of Carson, Rubio still might provide the public service—at least in the eyes of some panicky GOP stalwarts—of winning Florida to block Trump from clinching a potentially party-splitting nomination.

We’ll be updating this live blog throughout the evening, once again with input from Truthdig columnist and political expert Bill Boyarsky. Watch this space.

—Posted by Kasia Anderson

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