Businessman Donald J. Trump, Senator Marco Rubio, Senator Ted Cruz and Governor John Kasich took the stage at the BankUnited Center (BUC) in what was an unusually cordial debate Thursday evening. The University of Miami was the venue for the last Republican Presidential Primary debate before voters in Florida take to the polls on March 15.
“So far, I cannot believe how civil it’s been up here,” Trump said thirty minutes into the debate.
Leading up to the event, however, a different mood was being set outside the BUC. Hundreds gathered throughout the afternoon to protest a multitude of different issues – minimum wage, green energy sources, BlackLivesMatter and Trump himself – and marched together around campus, down Ponce de Leon Blvd. and directly in front of the debate venue.
Chants of “Donald Trump has got to go” and “You want our vote, come get our vote” echoed through the mob just as attendees were arriving at the BUC. Police vehicles lined Ponce and two large Secret Service vehicles blockaded the gates directly in front of the center.
Security was tight throughout the day leading up to the debate. Many streets, parking lots and walkways surrounding the BUC and the Allan and Patti Herbert Wellness Center were barricaded and guarded by police officers.
Early in the afternoon, Republican Senator Mike Lee of Utah announced his endorsement of Senator Ted Cruz. Lee is the first Republican senator to officially endorse a candidate in what is seen as a strategic move to narrow the playing field to a two-man race.
Lee said although he considers himself and Rubio friends, he would “encourage” Rubio to support Cruz’s run for the presidency.
“He is the only Republican candidate who can defeat Donald Trump and who can defeat Hillary Clinton,” Lee said when asked about his endorsement.
Lee joined Carly Fiorina, the former presidential candidate who dropped out of the race in February, and radio host Mark Levin in their support of Cruz. In what was seen by some as a counterplay, Trump nonchalantly announced former presidential candidate Dr. Ben Carson will endorse him on Friday.
As big-name supporters and delegates begin piling up for Trump and Cruz, Rubio and Kasich lean more and more into strong bases in their home states of Florida and Ohio, respectively.
As of Friday morning, Trump led with 458 delegates, followed by Cruz with 359, Rubio with 151 and Kasich with 54.
Both Florida and Ohio have a large number of delegates at stake, making Tuesday’s primaries in the two states a possible make-or-break moment for both Rubio and Kasich.
Sen. Rubio has a substantial following among Hispanic and Latino voters in South Florida, but a poll by CNN/ORC signaled Florida could be another friendly state for Trump in Tuesday’s vote.
In the poll taken March 2-6, 40 percent of likely Republican voters said they would be most likely to support Trump, as compared to 24 percent for Rubio and 19 percent for Cruz.
According to another poll the Washington Post and Univision conducted March 2-5, Trump is ahead of Rubio by only seven percent – 38 percent to 31 percent – among likely Republican voters in Florida. Rubio’s strength lies in his support among Hispanic Republicans, where he leads Trump 49 percent to 20 percent.
After several losses over the past few weeks and no new delegates, Rubio is weighing heavily upon the winner-take-all vote next week to bolster his campaign. If he faces another loss, Rubio will have to decide whether or not to drop out of the race, a decision many Florida Republicans have been murmuring about. According to the Washington Post and Univision poll, 59 percent of Florida Republicans think Rubio should end his candidacy if he does not win the Florida primary.
When faced with the chance of dropping out of the race, however, Rubio has shown an unwillingness to allow Trump to continue unchallenged. During a campaign stop on March 8 in Kissimmee, Florida he said this race was unique because of the nature of the Republican frontrunner.
“The pressure is to stay in,” he said.
He echoed this sentiment in Thursday night’s debate as well, saying he “will not give up” because it is so crucial to for him to fight against the chance of Trump becoming president.
Rubio and Cruz, both descendants of Cuban parents, played on their heritage in the days leading up to the debate, attending events in Cuban enclaves like Hialeah.
For Rubio, Thursday night was a return to his old stomping grounds. The Miami-born senator attended UM law school from 1994 until 1996. He is the first UM Law graduate to run for president.
Rubio received a loud welcome as he took the stage on Thursday night and several strong applauses throughout the debate, the most fervent of which followed his comments on the state of Cuba. After Trump said he would want to maintain engagement in Cuba but negotiate a better deal, Rubio listed a number of human rights violations still occurring on the island.
“Here’s a good deal: Cuba has free elections. Cuba stops putting people in jail for speaking out. Cuba has freedom of the press,” he said.
Another strong point of disagreement between Rubio and Trump related to comments Trump had made about Islam.
In an interview Wednesday night with CNN, Trump told reporter Anderson Cooper, “Islam hates us.” When asked if he wanted to clarify, Trump made references to radical Islamic practices, the 9/11 World Trade Center terrorist attacks and his lack of desire to be “politically correct.”
“I’m not interested in being politically correct. I’m interested in being correct,” Rubio rebutted. “We are going to have to work with people of the Muslim faith even as Islam itself faces a serious crisis within it of radicalization.”
Trump was also asked about the violence repeatedly reported at his rallies and events. Most recently, video surfaced of a Trump supporter sucker-punching a protester who was being escorted out of a rally in Fayetteville, North Carolina.
Cruz took the opportunity to equate the anger and disrespect in those moments to the emotions some Americans feel toward President Obama and the current leadership.
“You know, we’ve seen for seven years a president who believes he’s above the law, who behaves like an emperor, who it is all about him and he forgot that he’s working for the American people,” Cruz said. “Washington isn’t listening to the people. And that’s the frustration that is boiling over.”
Kasich agreed that the American people are unhappy with their situation, but said bipartisanship will be the way to solve pressing issues.
“Well, I worry about the violence at a rally, period. I mean, it’s – you know, elections are important but the unity of this country really matters,” he said.
Kasich’s statement was far from the polarizing rhetoric that had been deployed by several candidates at rallies and debates in the past.
The stereotyping and grouping of major groups of people throughout this presidential race has been problematic for candidates, and bringing them to Miami – specifically the University of Miami – tied directly back into initiatives launched by UM President Julio Frenk just months ago to embrace diversity.
In a portion of the event not aired by CNN, Dr. Frenk welcomed attendees to campus and emphasized the point he has reiterated since his presidency began: this university is a place of diversity and inclusion.
“We at the University of Miami promise to continue to bring our diverse community together in respectful, inclusive and constructive dialogue,” he said. “We are delighted to have this opportunity to showcase our extraordinary university and city.”
Rudy Fernandez, who is Dr. Frenk’s chief of staff, vice president for government and community relations and who has been involved with the G.O.P. for years, told The Miami Hurricane the university “aggressively pursued” the opportunity to serve as the venue for the debate.
Despite criticism by some members of the UM community for the decision, Dr. Frenk underscored the great opportunity it provided.
“Universities are communities committed to enlightening and engaging everyone – all races, ethnicities, genders, religions and origins,” Frenk said in his opening address at the debate.
One tangible effect of having a major political event happening on campus is the automatic awareness is brings about the presidential race and individual candidates, according to UM alumna Patricia Mazzei.
Mazzei, who is a political writer for the Miami Herald, was a student at UM when another large-scale debate was held on campus, something she said brought a wave of political enlightenment to the university.
“I remember there was a debate when I was a student and it was a big deal because it brought everybody into the election. Suddenly, everybody realized that there was an election and started following it in the news,” she said.
Senior Renee Reneau was one of the few students who attended the debate. A Rubio supporter, she said it was this election cycle that convinced her to become a registered Republican.
“I was a registered independent until just this year, when I registered Republican to not vote for Donald Trump,” she said.
Reneau, a communication studies and political science double-major, has been part of the UM Debate Team since her freshman year. She said she has not been impressed by the Republican debates so far, however, and would like to hear the candidates’ thoughts on issues such as higher education and Visa reform.
The candidates stayed away from the issue of higher education but did discuss their collective disapproval of Common Core – the educational standards set by the U.S. government that details the necessary knowledge of students as they go through elementary, middle and high school – and immigration.
Kasich specifically underlined the importance of forward-thinking education programs, the type of which he said was already in place in Ohio under his leadership.
“We need to start connecting them to the real world. We need to be training them for the jobs of the 21st Century … We need vocational education starting in the seventh grade where kids can get that kind of education that can take them to college, but all the way through their K through 12 they ought to be connected with real-world jobs,” he said.
Liam Allen-McGoran, a junior who won one of the 60 tickets distributed to UM students in a lottery, said Thursday was a welcome change for him, politically. He entered in the ticket lottery for the chance to see a possible future president of the United States in person, not necessarily because he was a great supporter of any of the candidates.
“I actually, I felt the Bern a few months ago,” he said, citing the campaign slogan of the potential Democratic candidate Bernie Sanders aimed at millennial voters. “Know your enemy.”
As for the newfound civility among candidates in Thursday’s debate, McGoran said he felt both relieved and dissatisfied.
“As a TV-watcher, I was disappointed. As an American citizen, I was proud that it was a little more professional than usual,” he said.
Thursday evening’s event was the first time UM hosted a Republican primary debate. In the past, the university served as the venue for a 2012 debate between Mitt Romney and President Barack Obama, an early-stage democratic primary debate in 2007 and a debate between John Kerry and former President George Bush in 2004.