Trump pivots to the general election during a calm Republican debate

The New York billionaire skipped the mud-slinging and personal attacks at the University of Miami that netted him pervasive media attention, ducked repeated openings to assail his rivals and largely avoided headline-grabbing hyperbole that made other debates must-see TV. The same was also largely true of the three other candidates on stage Thursday.

Instead, Trump toed a quieter line, particularly when he squabbled with Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, currently his closest competitor in the nominating contests, on issues including ethanol, immigration and challenging the Republican establishment.

“We’re all in this together. We’re going to come up with solutions. We’re going to find the answers to things and so far I cannot believe how civil it’s been up here,” Trump commented after briefly tussling with Cruz on immigration.

The debate was free of the fireworks and character assassinations of last week’s matchup, which culminated in a first: a presidential candidate commenting on his private parts to a TV audience of millions.

With the pivotal vote in Florida and other delegate-rich states looming on Tuesday, Trump and Cruz took turns debating their policy stances on issues such as international trade and Social Security.

“Social Security right now is careening towards insolvency and it’s irresponsible. Any politician that doesn’t step forward and address it is not being a real leader,” Cruz said after Trump said he wants to leave Social Security the way it is and instead cut waste, fraud and abuse elsewhere.

The matchup — which was the last big chance for the remaining four candidates to make their pitches to voters ahead of key winner-take-all contests in Florida, Ohio and Illinois — felt more like a two-man battle between Cruz and Trump.

That’s perhaps a preview what the next debate stage could look like during the next debate on March 21 in Salt Lake City.

Ohio Gov. John Kasich and Florida Sen. Marco Rubio have staked the future of their campaigns on winning their respective home states on March 15, and Thursday’s debate was a critical make-or-break moment for them both. Both were largely overshadowed, though, by Trump and Cruz during the debate.

Ahead in the polls in both states, Trump played the event like a big league team with a major lead — he played it safe. Still, his delegate lead is not insurmountable.

Kasich — who has yet to win a state nominating contest outright — appears to be within striking distance in Ohio, but Rubio is polling below the New York billionaire by double digits in the Sunshine State. His campaign continued to beat back on stories that he was preparing to drop out of the race, and Rubio earlier this week expressed remorse for the more personal attacks he slugged at Trump in recent weeks.

Kasich once again underscored his experience as Ohio governor and chairman of the House Budget Committee in how he could keep Social Security solvent and handle federal education programs.

Rubio slammed Trump’s plan for keeping Social Security afloat, saying that relying on cutting the budget for foreign aid and eliminating waste, fraud and abuse would not save the system from bankrupting.

“The bottom line is we can’t just continue to tiptoe around this and throw out things like we’re going to get it from abroad and waste, fraud and abuse. Let’s get rid of fraud, let’s get rid of abuse, let’s be more careful about how we spend foreign aid, but you still have hundreds of billions of dollars of deficit that you’re going to have to make up,” he said.

The debate opened with Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus calling for unity within the party. He also underscored that the party apparatus would “100 percent” back the nominee selected by the voters, a reflection on this year’s unique race.

Trump carried three of this week’s four nominating contests and announced at the debate that he’s won the endorsement of Ben Carson.    The retired neurosurgeon, dropped out of the race last week, is the second former competitor to back the billionaire — New Jersey Chris Christie formally rolled out his support last month.

Cruz, who has won seven states to date, appeared to settle into his position as the main alternative to Trump. He engaged little with Kasich and Rubio and instead focused most of his remarks on the real estate magnate.

Cruz, however, remains a reviled figure within his party. He secured the endorsement of his first Senate colleague, Utah Republican Mike Lee, only on Thursday. But the tide may be starting to turn. He announced the support of former presidential candidate Carly Fiorina on Wednesday.

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Staff writer Greg Bluestein contributed to this article.

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