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What We Learned From Thursday’s GOP Debate

The stakes were high for Rubio. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
The stakes were high for Rubio. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

The GOP stage is a lot less crowded now, and the tone was a lot calmer than the candidates’ previous meeting. It’s down to four candidates in the Republican presidential primary race, and time is running out for those party leaders who want to stop front-runner Donald Trump. (He managed to mention that former candidate Ben Carson would endorse him, which happened on Friday).  

During Thursday’s CNN debate in Miami, which took place less than a week before the Florida primary and other winner-take-all contests that will more heavily influence the delegate count, Sen. Marco Rubio was under pressure to make his case in his home state.  

Did the debate shift the fortunes of Rubio, Trump, Ted Cruz or John Kasich in any way? Stump speeches: “Donald Trump went into victory formation mode during this debate and his opponents didn’t try and break it up as aggressively as they have in more recent debates.  

“This was a much more civil occasion, with the candidates content to stick to their stump speeches, save for an occasional policy contrast.  It’s hard to see how a debate like this really changes the trajectory of the race in any of the winner-take-all contests that are coming up.”  

— Kevin Madden, former national press secretary for the Mitt Romney campaign

Throwback Thursday: “This was the ultimate throwback Thursday debate — as in a throwback to before the 2016 cycle. For the first time, all the candidates focused on their messages and limited the attacks to contrasts on policy. While I think Rubio had the strongest night on his home turf, all the candidates performed well and Trump’s restrained demeanor may help reassure some doubters.”
— Ian Prior, communications director for American Crossroads/Crossroads GPS
Backward, not forward: “The tone might have been different
, but the substance was simply wrong for the American people. In all of the screaming of their past debates, the Republican candidates got away without going into detail on the issues. Tonight, they were forced to say what they actually plan to do, and it was ugly. Republicans want to drag America backward on just about every issue.
“What a difference from the forward-looking debate we heard (Wednesday) in which Democrats again showed they understand how to build on the progress our country has already made. With every day that passes in this election, one thing becomes increasingly clear – there is an enormous substance gap between the two political parties.”
— DNC Chair Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz
Too little, too late for Rubio? Maybe not: “Marco Rubio was the clear winner of tonight’s debate. He showed, once again, command on foreign policy and bested Trump in memorable exchanges on Cuba and political correctness. Surely, pundits will opine that all of this is too little too late for Rubio, but I beg to differ. As we’ve seen in previous states, polling has proven inaccurate and support shifts quickly. Rubio can still edge out a win in Florida, and if he does — and (John) Kasich wins Ohio — the path for Trump becomes increasingly difficult.”
— Kenny Cunningham, Prism Group 
Solutions and change:  “T
debate was a substantive discussion about the critical issues in this election. Contrary to the race to the left going on in the Democrat primary, our field of accomplished Republican candidates continue(s) to offer the solutions and change in direction America urgently needs. Under President Obama, our country has become less prosperous, less safe and less free, but Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton want to keep going down the same failed path of bigger government and a weak foreign policy.
“Voters know we can’t have four more years like the last eight, and that’s why we’ve seen record turnout in our Republican primaries and caucuses while Democrats have stayed home in droves.”
— Republican National Committee (RNC) Chairman Reince Priebus
No fireworks: “Marco Rubio had the most to gain and left everything on the table. No matter the outcome, he can feel good that he stood up strong for basic, common human decency and conservative principles.
“The debate was the most policy focused debate we’ve had with little fireworks. It probably changed few minds. If anything, Donald Trump’s more muted performance could undercut his appeal as a bold, brash, sometimes crass leader.”
— Mindy Finn, former senior adviser on digital for the National Republican Senatorial Committee
 Simone Pathé, Eric Garcia and Mary C. Curtis compiled this report.

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