A surprisingly civil Republican debate still came with a warning from front-runner Donald Trump to a party at war over his insurgent candidacy: “Be smart and unify.”
While the debate on Thursday night focused on issues rather than insults, it was not clear that Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio and John Kasich were able to gain ground on the New York billionaire heading into the all-important primary votes on Tuesday in Florida and Ohio. Mr Rubio must win his home state of Florida, and Mr Kasich faces the same challenge in Ohio.
Mr Trump was also picking up an endorsement from former rival Ben Carson.
In all, 367 Republican delegates are at stake in Tuesday’s voting that also takes place in Illinois, Missouri, North Carolina, and the Northern Mariana Islands, which could go a long way toward determining who will be the Republican nominee.
Democrats Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders also will be competing, with Mrs Clinton out to regain momentum after her loss to Mr Sanders in Michigan this week.
The latest Republican debate, while so relatively calm that Mr Trump called it “elegant,” still had its share of conflict.
Mr Rubio’s message: “I know that a lot of people find appeal in the things Donald says. The problem is, presidents can’t just say anything they want because it has consequences around the world.”
Mr Cruz, eager to cement his position as the last best alternative to Mr Trump, said: “His solutions don’t work.”
Mr Trump was clearly intent on projecting a more presidential image.
“We’re all in this together,” he said. “We’re going to come up with solutions. We’re going to find the answer to things.”
In a discussion of the threat posed by radicalised Muslims, Mr Trump refused to back away from his view that “Islam hates the West.” He said he wouldn’t stoop to being “politically correct” by avoiding such statements.
Mr Rubio responded: “I’m not interested in being politically correct. I’m interested in being correct.” He said the only way to solve the problem of extremism was to work with moderate Muslims.
Mr Cruz criticised Mr Trump for offering simplistic solutions on trade and Islamic terrorism, saying: “The answer is not to simply yell, ‘China: bad, Muslim: bad.”’
The candidates split on the likelihood of the race coming down to a contested party convention this summer if no candidate has the necessary majority of delegates. So far, Mr Trump has 459, Mr Cruz 360, Mr Rubio 152 and Mr Kasich 54. It takes 1,237 to win the Republican nomination for president.