Critic's Notebook: Trump, Cruz and Rubio Practice Anger Management at GOP Debate

Republican debat all candidates GETTY - H 2016
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At Thursday night's Miami face-off on CNN, the only size that Trump boasted about was that of his crowds.

Who are you and what have you done with Donald Trump?

That was the question that came to mind during Thursday night's GOP debate, the last before next week's all-important primaries in such states as Florida and Ohio. (Florida. Why does it always have to be Florida?).

This was the anger management debate, in which nary an insult was hurled and the only reference Trump made to size was when he boasted, "I have much bigger crowds than Ted." The evening was remarkably calm, to the point that the frontrunner actually said, "We're all in this together," seeming like he was about to lead us in a sing-along of "We Shall Overcome."

He then continued, "So far I can't believe how civil it's been up here."  

Well, neither could anyone else. Those viewers new to the debates, the ones attracted by the publicity garnered by last week's raucous free-for-all, undoubtedly felt cheated. Where were the penis jokes? Where were the references to "Little Marco" and "Lyin' Ted?"

And it wasn't just Trump. The other candidates even made flattering references to the Democrats, with Marco Rubio giving credit to Bernie Sanders for his efforts to reform the VA and John Kasich lauding the Obama administration for sending battleships to the South China Sea. No wonder the crowd seemed listless, barely able to manage a response when Ted Cruz tried to bait them by asking, "How many of y'all feel disrespected by Washington?" Then again, maybe they just felt disrespected by the "y'all."

Either chastened by the bad press since the last debate or simply deciding to play it safe because of his sizable lead, Trump was mostly calm and measured throughout. He vigorously defended his positions, especially with Cruz attacking him at every opportunity, but never resorted to his familiar vulgarities.

The debate actually began a half-hour after the start of the broadcast, since these days a pregame show is apparently required. This one featured an onstage appearance by RNC chairman Reince Priebus, who told the crowd, "This party is going to support the nominee, whoever it is, one hundred percent." He might as well have coughed and said, "Trump." The statement was meant to be a rallying cry, but came across more like a threat.

That the night was going to be different from all other nights was evident from the start, with moderator Jake Tapper not opening it like it was a cockfight and asking the candidates to lambaste each other. Instead, there was a wonkish exchange about free trade, with Kasich, of all people, getting the first question. Even he seemed surprised. During the exchange Trump managed to work in that Ben Carson would be announcing his endorsement of him the following day (way to ruin the surprise, Donald). And Ted Cruz vowed to stop Washington in its tracks, which he admittedly has some experience doing.

Rubio was fighting for his political life, even if he admitted in his closing statement that his parents didn't want him to go into politics. And he had a strong night, especially in the segment about Cuba that played to his hometown strengths. He got into a heated tussle with Trump, who said that he supported resuming relations but thought that we had made a "terrible deal" and that the Cubans might sue us if we backed out.

"If they sue us in Miami they're going to lose," retorted Rubio to huge cheers. During this exchange and others, Trump made so many references to "deals" that it made one think that his campaign slogan shouldn't be "Make America Great Again" but rather "Let's Make a Deal."

But he undercut himself when asked about his stated position of being neutral when it came to Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations. "There's nobody on this stage who's more pro-Israel than I am," he boasted, citing that he was once the grand marshal of the Israeli Day Parade. (What, did he pay for it?) He went on to essentially say that he merely wanted the Palestinians to think he's neutral, apparently forgetting that they also watch television and read newspapers.

Cruz emphasized his true conservative bona fides at every turn, successfully establishing a stark contrast between himself and Trump. And he got a big response when he criticized Trump's asking the people at his rallies to pledge their support to him, saying that it should be the exact opposite.

"This is a job interview," he proclaimed about running for president, which sounded nice until you realized that he'd have a disturbing answer to the question, "Where do you see yourself in five years?"

Kasich was in uncharacteristic macho mode, especially on foreign affairs, basically claiming that if he was president the world would once again bow at our feet.

Rubio had a bad moment when confronted with a question sent in from the Republican mayor of Miami, one of his supporters, who wanted to know what he would do about climate change.

Not much, it seemed. Rubio didn't exactly go out on a limb by announcing, "I am in favor of a clean environment." Claiming that there was little that the government could do about the problem, he begrudgingly said that he supported "mitigation efforts," whatever they are. Later, when he defended his proposals to tighten Social Security benefits, he said that the changes wouldn't matter to people like him who were "25 or 30 years away from retirement." Considering his recent poll numbers, he may be overly optimistic.

Trump inevitably got the bulk of of scrutiny from the questioners. At times he stood his ground, such as when he was asked if he really meant his comment that "Islam hates us."

"I mean a lot of them," he shot back.

Other times he almost, and I mean almost, seemed contrite. Asked if he was guilty of encouraging violence at his rallies, he put on a very sad expression and murmured "I hope not, I truly hope not," adding, "We have some protestors who are bad dudes." And referring to his previous statement that the Chinese government was "strong" in its brutal crackdown of dissidents at Tiananmen Square, he made the argument that "strong doesn't mean good."

Careful, Donald. That message basically negates your entire campaign.