Trump, GOP rivals tangle in crucial Miami debate

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MIAMI (AP) — Donald Trump opened Thursday’s Republican president debate with a none-too-subtle message for GOP forces to unite behind his candidacy, saying, “The Republican establishment should embrace what’s happening.” Trump announced that one-time foe Ben Carson would endorse him on Friday.

At least in the debate’s early going, unlike previous face-offs, the candidates were on their best behavior, sticking to policy and avoiding personal attacks.

Trump and his three opponents quickly plunged into a discussion of trade that found them largely in agreement on a need to crack down on trade deals that tip the scales against U.S. workers without slamming the door on global markets.

Each of the candidates had an urgent mission as the GOP debate gave them a last chance to put their case to a televised audience of millions before voters in Florida and four other states dish out delegates next Tuesday. Those elections will go a long way toward determining the outcome of the primary season.

Ted Cruz was seeking to cement a position as the party’s last, best alternative to Trump. Marco Rubio was out to save his flagging candidacy by energizing voters in his home state of Florida. John Kasich was hoping his above-the-fray strategy would finally pay off.

Trump, for his part, was itching to give his front-runner’s campaign a giant thrust toward the nomination by dominating his dwindling cast of rivals.

Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus said in advance he was hoping for a more “G-rated debate” than the last Republican face-off, a week ago, when the candidates engaged in a two-hour brawl that featured shouting, insults and even sexual innuendo.

President Barack Obama, offering political commentary from the sidelines, said the party was going through a “Republican crackup” that had taken on the tone of a “circus.” He blamed the GOP itself for fostering the idea “that cooperation or compromise somehow is a betrayal.”

Trump told CNBC on Thursday that the imperative to win the GOP nomination had made him “not necessarily as politically correct and even as nice as you would like to be as a person.”

Earlier in the week, he’d pledged a “softer” debate in Miami, but he also made his vow to finish what he’d begun.

While Trump talks about showing a softer side, some of his rallies have had a harder edge, with the candidate at times seeming to encourage physical altercations with protesters. At a rally in Las Vegas, for example, he said he’d like to punch a protester in the face. On Wednesday, a man was charged with assault for attacking a protester who was being escorted out of a Trump rally in Fayetteville, North Carolina.

Rubio, Trump’s chief antagonist, has been rethinking his own tone.

After mocking the billionaire businessman on everything from a bad spray tan to his spelling to his “small hands,” the Florida senator admitted to having regrets.

“My kids were embarrassed by it, and if I had to do it again, I wouldn’t,” he said.

Florida is the biggest prize of Tuesday’s five-state round of voting, and all 99 of the state’s delegates will go to the winner.

In all, 367 Republican delegates will be at stake, with voting also occurring in Illinois, Missouri, North Carolina, Ohio and the Northern Mariana Islands.

Earlier Thursday, Cruz showcased his first Senate endorsement, from Mike Lee of Utah, a tea party favorite. Cruz has few friends among the GOP in the Senate.

As Rubio’s fortunes declined this past week, Sens. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Dean Heller of Nevada raised the possibility of Cruz as the alternative, but others stood firm in their support for Rubio and declined to even discuss the prospect of Cruz as their choice.

Ohio Gov. Kasich, who has tried to stay out of the name-calling, pinned his hopes of survival on bringing home the 66 delegates in his state’s winner-take-all primary. He has yet to win anywhere.

In the race for delegates, Trump has 458, Cruz 359, Rubio 151 and Kasich 54. It takes 1,237 to win the Republican nomination for president.

Written by Nancy Benac and Julie Bykowicz