- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 10, 2016

CORAL GABLES, Fla. — A new Donald Trump took the stage Thursday at the Republican presidential debate, delving into policy, avoiding personal insults and refusing to take the bait when prodded by his rivals.

The billionaire businessman and front-runner for the nomination made good on a pledge to adopt a softer tone, cognizant that his rebellious persona threatened to become a liability and he needed to act presidential.

“So far, I cannot believe how civil it has been up here,” Mr. Trump said at the University of Miami in a debate sponsored by The Washington Times, CNN and Salem Media Group.

He adopted the new debate style at an opportune moment. The debate, just days before big primaries in Florida and Ohio, marked a crucial juncture in the race when either Mr. Trump will solidify his lead or opposing forces will come together to block him.

The winner-take-all contests Tuesday also promise to narrow the field if Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida and Ohio Gov. John Kasich can’t win their home states. That would put Mr. Trump and Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas in a mano-a-mano fight for the Republican nomination.

It was a dramatic change from the rowdy tenor and personal barbs traded at the debate last week in Michigan, where Mr. Trump alluded to the large size of his penis and branded Mr. Rubio as “Little Marco.”

SEE ALSO: Donald Trump doubles down on ‘Islam hates America’ claim

This time, the candidates sparred over trade, immigration, Social Security and who has the wherewithal to stand up to the Washington establishment.

Mr. Trump moved quickly to preempt attacks on his business using immigration laws to bring highly skilled foreign workers into the United States, often at the expense of American workers.

“It’s something that I frankly use and I shouldn’t be allowed to use it,” he said. “We shouldn’t have it. Very, very bad for workers. And, second of all, I think it’s very important to say, well, I’m a businessman and I have to do what I have to do.”

He called for a one- or two-year halt on the visa program for highly skilled workers, known as H-1B.

Early in the debate, Mr. Trump made a plea for the Republican Party establishment, which has skewed the tycoon, to embrace the movement he spurred and brought millions of new voters into the process to support him.

“They’re voting out of enthusiasm. They’re voting out of love,” Mr. Trump said. “We’re taking people from the Democrat Party. We’re taking people as independents, and they’re all coming out and the whole world is talking about it. It’s very exciting. I think, frankly, the Republican establishment, or whatever you want to call it, should embrace what’s happening.”

SEE ALSO: Donald Trump says he doesn’t condone violence at rallies

He said that his army of new voters would beat Hillary Clinton “or whoever it may be. And we’re going to beat them soundly.”

Mr. Rubio challenged Mr. Trump’s plan to leave Social Security intact and shore up the retirement program by cutting fraud and making foreign governments pay for U.S. military protection.

“It’s my absolute intention to leave Social Security as is,” Mr. Trump said.

Mr. Rubio, who wants to gradually raise the retirement age and reduce benefits, said the savings identified by Mr. Trump were a mere fraction of the deficit that will bankrupt Social Security in 20 years.

“You still have hundreds of billions of dollars of deficits you have to make up,” he said.

Mr. Trump responded that he can save money throughout the government by making good deals that are not manipulated by lobbyists.

“I’m self-funding my campaign. I don’t take anybody’s money,” said Mr. Trump.

Mr. Cruz was the one to launch the sharpest attacks on Mr. Trump, including a challenge of the businessman’s willingness to stand up to lobbyists, the Washington establishment and Democrats, whom Mr. Trump funded in the past.

“If you are fed up with Washington, you should ask who is willing to take on Washington,” he said. “If you are funding the Democrats and funding Washington establishment, it’s hard to imagine how this person will stand up to Washington.”

Mr. Trump wasn’t fazed.

“I will say this: We are all in this together we are going to come up with solutions, we are going to find the answers to things,” Mr. Trump said.

At one point, Mr. Rubio schooled Mr. Trump on a foreign policy question. Asked whether the U.S. should open relations with Cuba, Mr. Trump remained vague, saying he would make “a strong, solid, good deal.” He added that he would close the embassy in Cuba until such a deal was met, as to avoid reparations and litigation.

“I don’t know that Cuba is going to sue us, but if they sue in a court in Miami, they are going to lose,” Mr. Rubio said to thunderous applause and laughs from the audience.

“Nothing will change for the Cuban people,” said Mr. Rubio, the son of Cuban immigrants. “Things are worse than they were before this opening. We’re getting nothing in return.”

Mr. Cruz, whose father is Cuban, joined in against Mr. Trump, saying the businessman simply doesn’t understand the issues. “His answer to everything is that everything would be better if only someone smarter were in government,” he said.

Mr. Trump kept mum.

But in another exchange, Mr. Trump doubled down on his claim that Islam “hates” America. Asked whether he meant that all 1.6 billion Muslims worldwide hate the United States, Mr. Trump replied, “I mean a lot of them. I mean a lot of them. There’s tremendous hatred, and I will stick with exactly what I said.”

Mr. Rubio criticized Mr. Trump, saying his comment has “a real impact” with Muslims worldwide and pointing out that Muslims serve in the U.S. military. “They love America,” Mr. Rubio said. “As far as I know, no one on this stage has served in uniform in the United States military.”

Mr. Cruz challenged Mr. Trump on his trade policy, noting that his proposed 45 percent tax on imports would hurt American consumers.

“If you can’t pay the bills, how does it help you to have a president to then come and say, ‘I’m going to jack up, I’m going to put a 45 percent tax on diapers when you buy diapers, on automobiles when you buy automobiles, on clothing when you buy clothing,” Mr. Cruz asked.

Mr. Trump hit back, saying his trade policy would actually have the opposite effect, but on the curious grounds that it’s only a threat. “The 45 percent tax isn’t a tax, it’s a threat. It will be a tax if they don’t change.”

Mr. Cruz, a tea party champion who nevertheless emerged as the establishment’s best bet to derail the runaway Trump train, has increasingly called for the party to unite behind him and possibly deliver him the nomination at a brokered convention in July in Cleveland.

Mr. Cruz has been the only contender to keep up with Mr. Trump in the delegate race. The big contests Tuesday will determine whether the Texan narrows the gap or falls further behind.

“Head to head, not only do I beat Donald Trump, but I defeat him resoundingly,” Mr. Cruz said Wednesday at a Fox News forum.

For Mr. Rubio, the debate was a last chance to salvage his flagging campaign. He has been losing ground in the polls and recent primary elections. If he can’t pull off a comeback win in his home state of Florida, he will likely drop out of the race.

“Marco’s going to be a different person. He will be mortally wounded,” Mr. Trump told CNN heading into the debate.

The billionaire businessman and reality TV star topped most polls in Florida with double-digit leads.

Dave Boyer and Kelly Riddell contributed to this report from Washington.

• S.A. Miller can be reached at smiller@washingtontimes.com.

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