Final four showdown: 5 big moments from CNN's GOP debate

While the 12th debate was generally a snoozefest, some sparks did fly while you were sleeping

By Sophia Tesfaye

Senior Politics Editor

Published March 11, 2016 2:49PM (EST)

 (Pedro Portal/The Miami Herald via AP)
(Pedro Portal/The Miami Herald via AP)

Turns out the 12th Republican debate and perhaps the last debate before the once crowded field of seventeen contenders winnows down to a two-man race was actually a snoozefest.

Blame CNN debate moderators Jack Tapper and Dana Bash who opened with substantive policy questions, avoiding much room for the candidates to directly clash. Or blame it on whatever sedative comes as part of also-ran Dr. Ben Carson's endorsement. In the end, neither the big dog at center stage nor the minions yapping at his tail seemed inclined to reenact last week's down in the gutter melee.

Earlier this week, Marco Rubio told Megyn Kelly that he regretted his petty sparring with Trump at the Fox News debate in Detroit, admitting that his children had expressed their humiliation. And in recent days, Trump has promised to appear more "presidential" as he prepares to clinch the nomination. Still, with certain campaign death facing at least two candidates on last night's stage squarely in the eye, it seemed odd that the entire night was so subdued.

More than an hour into the two hour debate, Trump remarked: "I cannot believe how civil its been up here."

Far from a Final Four showdown, Thursday night's debate in Miami turned to talk of Common Core and H1B visas instead of crude humor about hand size and pants wetting, yet still managed to be devoid of substance -- at least from the candidates.

Jake Tapper tried, but failed to fact-check Trump:

After about an hour of policy talk, Tapper returned to the tension that has driven the Republican clown show, asking Trump about a North Carolina supporter who was arrested Thursday after assaulting a protester at a Fayetteville rally.

"Do you believe that you've done anything to create a tone where this kind of violence would be encouraged?" Tapper directly asked Trump. When the blustery businessman denied any role in inciting violence from his followers, Tapper followed-up with quotes of Trump doing exactly that.

"February 23rd, 'I'd like to punch him in the face,' referring to a protesters," Tapper said, noting Trump's campaign rhetoric. "February 27th, 'in the good ol' days, they'd have ripped him out of that seat so fast.' February 1st, 'knock the crap out of him, would, you? Seriously, OK, just knock the hell. I promise you I will pay for the legal fees, I promise, I promise.'"

Trump, of course, continued to deny his role as a carnival barker, using a shout out to the police officers patrolling his rallies to deflect from the heat:

Marco Rubio breaks the news that laws can't change weather:

Towards the end of the debate, Tapper shocked the world, conveying a message from the Republican mayor of Miami on ---- climate change!

"Climate change means rising ocean levels, which in south Florida means flooding downtown and in our neighborhoods. It's an every day reality in our city. Will you, as president acknowledge the reality of the scientific consensus about climate change and as president, will you pledge to do something about it?" Mayor Regalado asked the candidates via Tapper.

Tapper noted that Regalado is a Rubio supporter and directed the question to the Florida senator, who only went on to continue his denialism.

"Well, sure if the climate is changing and one of the reasons is because the climate has always been changing," Rubio said, reciting tautology that drew thunderous applause from the audience.

But Rubio wasn't done. "There's never been a time when the climate has not changed."

"But as far as a law that we can pass in Washington to change the weather, there's no such thing," he explained. "America is not a planet. It's a country."

Get this man an award, stat!

Ted Cruz promises to "end welfare benefits for anyone who is here illegally," but nobody claps:

It was the only moment of the night when Jeb! Bush might have been missed, but Cruz was apparently too proud to ask the Miami audience to clap for his pathetic pandering. Obviously aware of the fact that undocumented immigrants are already outlawed from receiving federal assistance, Cruz avoided any mention of exactly which benefits he planned to end.

You can actually see the moment Jeb's heart breaks.

"I'd be maybe running for president of Croatia if we didn't have immigration"

Ohio Governor John Kasich made an appearance to try his hand at debate humor, but was otherwise a non-factor:

I believe in immigration, but it has to be controlled. The simple fact of the matter is I wouldn't be standing here. I'd be maybe running for president of Croatia if we didn't have immigration.

Ted Cruz's lame parting shot at Trump:

During closing statements, Cruz showed a last-minute flare for a fight, delivering a parting shot that you would have missed if you blinked.

"What an incredible nation we have that the son of a bartender, and the son of a mailman, and the son of a dishwasher," he began, referring to Rubio, Kasich and himself, "and a successful businessman can all stand on this stage competing, and asking for your support." For some unknown reason, Cruz apparently thought the allusion to Trump's not-so-humble beginnings worked better than outright stating that Trump is the son of a millionaire businessman.

Earlier in the night, however, Cruz did land a less subtle jab.

"Donald, you are welcome to be president of the Smithsonian."

Watch CNN's full GOP debate below:

By Sophia Tesfaye

Sophia Tesfaye is Salon's senior editor for news and politics, and resides in Washington, D.C. You can find her on Twitter at @SophiaTesfaye.

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