Rubio was asked by a moderator about a statement from Miami’s mayor, a Republican who has endorsed Rubio, worrying that rising sea levels would swamp parts of his city. Rubio responded with skepticism that climate change was really a man-made phenomenon, saying that the climate was always changing. Rubio then pivoted to a slightly different argument – saying, in essence, that U.S. policies could not stop climate change because other countries were already pumping out so many emissions.
“I am not going to destroy the U.S. economy for a law that will do nothing for the environment,” Rubio said. It was a remarkable contrast from the Democratic debate the night before, when both Democratic candidates spoke about climate change as an urgent problem, and spoke about an urgent need to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions.
Speaking after him, Ohio Gov. John Kasich said, “I do believe” in man-made climate change. The other two candidates onstage – Sen. Ted Cruz (Texas) and billionaire front-runner Donald Trump – were not asked their opinion.
Earlier in the evening, Republican front-runner Donald Trump appeared to make up his policy on Cuba on the spot, pausing for a moment to decide that he would undo President Obama’s decision to reopen the U.S. Embassy in Havana.
“I would probably have the embassy closed,” Trump said, after being pressed by CNN’s Dana Bash. He said the closure would be temporary, while he renegotiated the terms of America’s rapprochement with Cuba. “Make a deal. It would be great. But it’s got to be a great deal. Not a bad deal by the United States.”
What followed was one of Rubio’s best moments of the night – a chance to defend a hard-line policy toward Cuba’s communist regime, which was a key part of his platform during his rise in Florida politics. Rubio is the son of Cuban immigrants.
“Here’s a good deal. Cuba has free elections. Cuba stops putting people in jail” for political reasons, Rubio said, listing the details he would demand in a future deal with the island’s communist government. “You know what? Then we can have a relationship with Cuba. That’s a good deal.”
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Trump gave an unusually wide-ranging denunciation of Islam and Muslims in Thursday’s GOP debate, saying that “a lot of ’em” hate America.
“I will tell you, there’s something going on that maybe you don’t know about, maybe a lot of other people don’t know about, but there’s tremendous hatred,” Trump said, after he was asked about a comment he made earlier this week that “Islam hates us.”
Rubio criticized Trump in his most forceful attack of the night, saying that Trump’s comments would hurt America’s interests by alienating Muslims overseas. Trump stood by it, and expanded with his own criticism of Islam’s treatment of women.
“You can be politically correct if you want. I don’t want to be so politically correct. I like to solve problems,” Trump said. “Islam. Large portions want to use very, very harsh means. Let me go a step further. Women are treated horribly. You know that, you do know that.”
That brought an attack from Cruz, who had mocked Trump several times in this debate with caveman-like over-simplifications of policy arguments.
Islamic terrorism was a huge threat, Cruz said, and he blamed President Obama for under-playing and under-estimating the threat. “That is maddening,” Cruz said. “But the answer is not simply to yell, ‘China bad! Muslims bad!’ ”
Then Cruz turned to an argument that, in essence, Trump’s harsh rhetoric belied his actual policy positions on the Middle East, which Cruz believed were not hard-line enough. For instance, Cruz believed that Trump was not sufficiently pro-Israel, and would give away too much by seeking to be neutral broker in future talks between Israel and Palestinians.
Prior to the exchange, the most spectacular arguments were between Trump and – himself. In two different instances, Trump outlined a policy that he said was bad – and then explained how he himself embraced it.
On the question of immigration, for instance, Trump said that the system of “H-1b” visas, meant for highly skilled foreigners, was a bad thing for U.S. workers. But he still uses it at his businesses.
“It’s something that I frankly use. And I shouldn’t be allowed to use. And we shouldn’t have it,” Trump said of the high-skilled visa program. “It’s sitting there waiting for you. But it’s very bad . . . for our workers. And it’s very unfair for our workers.”
And then, on the subject of Social Security, Trump seemed to criticize Democratic candidates Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders for saying they didn’t want to change Social Security, and even wanted to expand it.
Trump then said that he, too, did not want to change Social Security.
“I will do everything in my power not to touch Social Security, to leave it the way it is,” Trump said, after Rubio had said he wanted to gradually change Social Security so that future generations of retirees would retire later. “It’s my absolutely intention to leave Social Security the way it is.”
It was an almost post-apocalyptic debate, in which Trump rivals who had been blasting Trump a week earlier seemed to see little point in fighting anymore. As the debate went on, Trump even seemed to turn the heat up gradually against Cruz, saying that he had been for “amnesty” for undocumented immigrants. It was one of the worst insults of this campaign so far. Cruz just laughed, and the debate moved on. At another moment, a moderator noted that Cruz had mocked Clinton for saying something that Trump had just said right in front of him – that Social Security could be salvaged by cutting only ‘Waste, fraud and abuse” – and not any benefits that people actually need.
Did he just compare Trump to Hillary Clinton? A moderator asked.
Cruz, even then, didn’t bite. “I will let Donald speak for himself,” Cruz said.
Social Security is a major issue in Florida, where the debate is being held. The location, the University of Miami, is in recognition that the biggest prize at stake on Tuesday is the Sunshine State, where 99 delegates will be awarded to the winner, regardless of the voting percentages.
On Thursday, a new Washington Post -Univision News poll showed Trump leading Rubio by a margin of 38 percent to 31 percent among likely Republican voters in Florida. That actually is good news for Rubio: Previous polls have shown him losing to Trump by double digits. But still, he would come away empty handed if he loses his home state.
Trump so far has won GOP contests in 15 states. He has accumulated about 458 Republican delegates, which is 99 more than Cruz, his closest rival. Trump needs 1,237 delegates to win the nomination.
During the debate, Trump said he would be the best at un-doing the damage done to American workers by foreign trade deals – and his argument was that, as a businessman, he has exploited those very laws skilfully.
“Nobody knows the system better than me,” Trump said, when debate moderator Anderson Cooper asked about Trump’s hiring of foreign workers for his businesses. Trump has also been criticized for having his name-branded clothing and other products made overseas, despite his campaign-trail rhetoric bemoaning the loss of American manufacturing jobs. “I will take advantage of it – they’re the laws. But I’m the one who knows how to change it,” Trump said.
The subject of foreign trade has become a powerful issue in both the Republican and Democratic presidential primaries, with Trump and Democratic-primary candidate Bernie Sanders appealing to white working-class voters by blaming long-serving politicians for the trade deals that shipped jobs away.
In Thursday’s GOP debate, the two GOP candidates who are in the Senate sounded strongly skeptical of deals that allow freer trade, which have long been favored by Republicans in Washington. Both blamed the Obama administration, for essentially failing to hammer out trade deals that worked well, and failing to properly enforce what had been agreed-to before.
“There are great trade deals, and there are bad ones,” Rubio said.
“We’re getting killed in international trade right now,” Cruz said.
Trump opened the debate by saying that his party’s establishment should embrace him – not fight him – because Trump is bringing new voters to the primary polls.
“They’re voting out of enthusiasm. Some of these people, frankly, have never voted before,” Trump said, calling his success in the GOP primary one of the biggest political stories around the globe. He said that the GOP establishment should accept him, because he could defeat a Democrat in the fall: “We’re going to beat them soundly.”
Earlier in the day, reports indicated that Trump will soon be endorsed by a candidate who was involved in earlier main-stage debates – retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson.
Losing Florida would be a devastating blow not just to Rubio’s presidential campaign but his political career. Rubio is leaving the Senate, and he would have to face the next phase of his life with Trump’s epithet “Little Marco” metaphorically hung around his neck.
The fourth candidate onstage Thursday is Ohio Gov. John Kasich, who has tried to stay out of the fighting among Trump, Rubio and Cruz. For now, Kasich’s above-it-all strategy seems to have worked better than Rubio’s: Polls show Kasich in a close race with Trump in his home state of Ohio.
On Tuesday, Ohio will be almost as big a prize as Florida, with 66 delegates for the winner and zero for everybody else. In Ohio, Kasich has the state’s GOP apparatus strongly behind him, and a fairly high approval rating. If he can beat Trump anywhere, this is it.