GOP debate winners and losers

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Thursday night’s Republican debate in Miami saw a dramatic shift in tone from recent GOP clashes, which had been marked by rancorous exchanges and name-calling. 

The change surprised even front-runner Donald TrumpDonald TrumpClinton up 3 points in post-debate poll 3 ways the next president can succeed on immigration reform Clinton and Trump need to address healthcare in next debate MORE, who said at one point, “I cannot believe how civil it’s been up here.” 

But who gained and who lost as crucial primaries loom in Florida, Ohio and several other states on Tuesday? 

WINNERS 

Businessman Donald Trump 

One of the ironclad rules of political campaigns is that a front-runner gains from a debate that produces no game-changing moments. 

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By that standard, Trump had by far the best night on Thursday. His rivals highlighted their differences with him, but there was little personal enmity. Trump maintained a calmer demeanor throughout and was never knocked off his stride. 

Trump leads in Florida, Tuesday’s biggest prize, by more than 15 points according to the RealClearPolitics (RCP) polling average, so the relative lack of debate drama will be just fine with him.

The businessman’s performance was also characterized by repeated calls for the GOP to unify around him and to “embrace” his capacity to bring new voters to the party. Trump has for some time been focusing attention on what he sees as his electability in the fall, and this was the most pronounced example yet. 

In an interview with CNN’s Chris Cuomo moments after the debate ended, Trump declared that the evening had been “elegant” and said, “We needed this kind of a debate.” 

Those aren’t the words of a man who was unhappy with anything that happened during the previous two hours. 

The Republican Party 

There had been widespread consternation within the GOP about the nature of the most recent two debates, one of which featured Trump responding to a Rubio campaign-trail innuendo about his genitalia. 

The party establishment may not yet be reconciled to the prospect of Nominee Trump, but there will at least be a collective sigh of relief about the more measured exchanges on Thursday night in Miami. 

Policy wonks will also have derived some satisfaction from the evening, which featured substantive discussions about a wide range of issues, foreign and domestic, from Social Security and veterans’ affairs to trade agreements and relations with Cuba. 

Sen. Marco RubioMarco RubioObama nominates ambassador to Cuba Rubio praises Marlins pitcher José Fernández on Senate floor Glenn Beck: I was wrong about Ted Cruz MORE (Fla.)

Rubio entered this debate on the ropes. He suffered a dismal series of election results in Tuesday’s contests, and there is no real evidence that he is clawing his way back into contention in his home state. 

Perhaps wisely, he didn’t try to knock out Trump, or anyone else, with a single blow on Thursday night. Instead, he delivered a solid performance that will have reminded his supporters why they believe in him. 

He also likely helped himself in the Sunshine State on a couple of issues. 

His critique of President Obama’s decision to reopen diplomatic relations with Cuba was powerful, and he walked a fine line effectively on Social Security reform in a state that has more than 3.1 million retirees receiving benefits, as co-moderator Jake Tapper noted. While Rubio proposed gradually raising the retirement age, he also noted that, “I’m against any changes to Social Security that are bad for my mother.” 

Make no mistake, Rubio’s chances of the nomination are exceedingly slim at this point — and they could expire completely if he loses the Florida primary. But he acquitted himself well on Thursday night nonetheless. 

MIXED 

Sen. Ted CruzTed CruzFunding bill rejected as shutdown nears Cruz: Clinton 'tired' and 'formulaic' during debate The Trail 2016: Fight night MORE (Texas) 

Cruz can take satisfaction from the fact that he is clearly the biggest threat to Trump’s quest for the nomination. His debate performance Thursday was proficient, as it almost always is, but he delivered no moments spectacular enough to derail the Trump train. 

The Texas senator continues to assail Trump over his conservative bona fides.  

On Thursday, he said that it was a “matter of public record” that the business mogul had supported Democratic nominee John KerryJohn KerryDemocrats target Libertarian ticket Mark Mellman: Debating the debate Johnson links Dem opponent to Clinton email scandal MORE over incumbent Republican President George W. Bush in the 2004 election and had given money to Hillary ClintonHillary Rodham ClintonChelsea Clinton: Didn't know mom had pneumonia Gary Johnson hits Clinton, Trump in op-ed Clinton up 3 points in post-debate poll MORE for her 2008 presidential campaign. He also knocked Trump for, in Cruz’s view, his insufficient support for Israel. 

Still, this was a more subdued Cruz than on previous occasions. He may have calculated that going into full-on attack mode would hurt rather than help him or that he should bide his time until other candidates drop out and leave him in a one-on-one battle with Trump. 

But time is running perilously short for anyone hoping to beat Trump. Cruz at one point highlighted that he was only about 100 delegates behind the front-runner and that he had beaten him in a number of states.  

Trump shot back immediately: “He’s always saying, ‘I’m the only one that beat Donald in six contests, and I beat him.’ But I beat him in 13 contests. He never mentions that.” 

All Cruz could do was smile. 

Ohio Gov. John Kasich

Kasich, a more uneven debater than Cruz, had a respectable night. But a highlight reel for the Ohio governor would be very short indeed. He was competent but not memorable. 

Kasich also suffered from an unusual dynamic. In the most recent debates, he had been able to distinguish himself by his positivity amid rampant mud-slinging. With his rivals adopting a more dignified tone on Thursday, Kasich stood out less starkly. 

LOSERS 

Democrats and fans of recent GOP debates 

Democrats had reacted with undisguised glee to previous Republican debates, which they believed damaged the party’s brand and curbed its capacity to reach out to voters in the center ground. There was much less for them to latch onto on Thursday. 

They were not left entirely without ammunition. Trump’s description of the 1989 pro-democracy Tiananmen Square uprising in China as a “riot” will surely find its way into an attack ad if he does become the GOP nominee. 

When Rubio suggested concerns about climate change were overstated, Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (Fla.), chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee, immediately excoriated him on Twitter.  

Still, those were slim pickings compared to sound bites about the size of parts of Trump’s anatomy or clashes that featured his repeated mocking of his two main rivals as “Little Marco” and “Lying Ted.” 

Of course, there are other viewers — not all of them Democrats — who have loved the WWE style of those recent debates. Thursday night, by those standards, just didn’t pack the same punch.