Donald Trump talks with John Kasich during a commercial break during last night's Republican debate at the University of Miami. (Reuters/Carlo Allegri)

THE BIG IDEA:

The GOP candidates took a break from the civil war and were just civil.

After last week’s embarrassment, the 12th Republican debate was their most substantive. There was little crosstalk at the University of Miami. It actually took half an hour for someone to level a direct attack.

"So far I cannot believe how civil it’s been up here,” Trump said at one point.

It basically stayed that way, and it played right into the front-runner’s hands.

Determined not to go into the gutter, no one really stripped away any of Trump’s Teflon coating. His biggest errors were unforced, like when he called the protests in Tiananmen Square a "riot” (yikes) and seemed to not really know anything about U.S.-Cuba policy.

Everyone on stage was trying to prove something: “Trump sought to project a command of issues and a temperament that is suited to the Oval Office, rather than a reality show,” Karen Tumulty and Philip Rucker note. “Marco Rubio was attempting to repair the damage that he has done to his reputation by baiting Trump with schoolyard taunts. Ted Cruz portrayed himself as an outsider, like Trump — but one with greater intellectual depth. And John Kasich emphasized his blue-collar roots and his governing experience — the latter commodity being one that thus far has not found a market in this year’s discontented electorate.”

-- The two-hour showdown seems unlikely to change the trajectory of the race, which is bad news for the underdogs. This was the last big media event before Tuesday’s winner-take-all primaries in Florida and Ohio. Rubio and Kasich will be out of the race if they lose their home states. Polls show each trailing Trump, though there was some good news for Rubio in a Washington Post-Univision News poll published yesterday: While several surveys have put him down double digits, we have the Florida senator within seven points of Trump (38-31).

The candidates shake hands at the end of the debate. (Reuters/Carlo Allegri)

-- Trump repeatedly got a pass, as his opponents ducked opportunities to take easy shots. No one spoke up, for example, when he bragged about profiting off loopholes in the U.S. visa program. “I’m a businessman,” he said. “We’re allowed to do it. So I will take advantage of it; they’re the laws. But I’m the one that knows how to change it. Nobody else on this dais knows how to change it like I do, believe me.”

-- To quote the conservative Ace of Spades blog, “If you're not actively delegitimizing Trump, you're legitimizing him. … They treated him as a typical politician, someone they just disagree with here or there, which is precisely the thing that got him into first place.”

A chorus of voices across the right agreed.

“That debate was terrible. The consultants who told these guys not to hit Trump should be punched,” fumed Republican consultant Jordan Gehrke, who helped elect Trump critic Ben Sasse to the Senate in 2014. “Trump was leading and didn’t get hurt. He won. … You know what really worked? Not attacking Trump for the first six months of this campaign. Glad Cruz & Rubio got back to that tonight.”

“I want to vomit on everything there is and never stop vomiting. The goal of this debate was to damage Trump. Nobody did,” conservative commentator Ben Shapiro wrote on The Daily Wire. He gave Trump an “A” and everyone else a “B”: “They all apparently thought they were running for belle of the Miami Cotillion. They deserve to lose.”

New York Times conservative columnist Ross Douthat said “Trump keeps proving that these (other) guys aren’t up to the job they’re after.”

“Yes, it's really hard to figure out how to attack Donald,” Douthat noted. “But you know what's even harder? Being president of the United States.”

Jennifer Rubin, a conservative opinion writer at The Post, called the dearth of attacks “stunning.”

“Intended or not, they allowed Trump to don a cloak of respectability,” she wrote. “Given the chance to address violence at rallies, they did not criticize Trump’s language. They refused even to challenge Trump’s repeated claim he is beating Hillary Clinton in the polls. Do they think voters do not care, or are they afraid of the blow-back? Not once did anyone turn to Trump to point out an answer was unintelligible. Perhaps it would not have made a difference, but it would have been reassuring to see them try.”

National Review columnist Jonah Goldberg called it a good debate – that might have come too late: “I have to wonder: If the field had been this small all year, would Trump be the frontrunner? I don’t think so. He’s benefited from the fact that there was no time to provide substance. Now that he’s pivoting to what passes for a presidential pose, Trump was rather boring and lame. But that is probably what the moment requires now. If we’d seen “presidential” Trump from day one, particularly in a smaller field, I suspect the country would have been spared the corrupting mess before us now.”

From the executive editor of N.R.:

-- By keeping his cool, Trump dominated the debate. He spoke for 27 minutes, eight minutes more than Kasich, who spoke the least, per Politico’s tabulation. Twitter reports that two-thirds of the online conversation during the debate was about Trump.

Trump found a different way to control the evening: by deflection and adaptability,” The Post’s Dan Balz explains. “He adapted a more restrained and subdued demeanor, even passing up opportunities to strike back when his opponents tried to engage him. It was a strategy common to any front-runner — play not to lose, avoid mistakes or eruptions, and force the opposition to change the dynamic.”

-- Candidly, there is a just-can’t-win element to this. Operatives on the non-Trump campaigns are frustrated about the tenor of the coverage. They feel like they are damned if they attack Trump and damned if they don’t. Commentary Magazine’s Noah Rothman argued that it is “a bit incongruous for the press to berate Rubio for getting into the mud and, when he takes the high road, declare it surrender.” That, though, sort of misses the point that you don’t have to talk about “hand size” to emphasize significant and legitimate contrasts.

-- There’s agreement that everyone on stage actually debated pretty well, but it may not matter.

-- Cruz probably made the most forceful case against Trump. The Fix’s Chris Cillizza names him one of the night’s winners: “The Texas senator succeeded, at times during the debate, in making it seem as though it was a one-on-one race between him and Trump. Cruz was also less deeply rehearsed in this debate -- to the good. He has a different challenge than Rubio or Kasich, who need to bend the arc of the contest. They need a knockout of Trump; Cruz is trying to beat him on points.”

-- The Post’s Fact Checkers seize on 16 fishy claims made by the Republican candidates during the debate. Six highlights from Glenn Kessler and Michelle Ye Hee Lee:

  1. Trump doesn’t really know what he’s talking about on Common Core.
  2. Trump claimed that “the Disney workers” have endorsed him. Only two did.
  3. Trump said there was no GDP growth the last two quarters. It was actually 2 percent in the third quarter and 1 percent in the fourth.
  4. Kasich overstated his role in balancing the federal budget.
  5. Rubio exaggerated how much of the federal budget is spent on entitlements.
  6. The zombie claim about the shrinking Navy just won’t go away.

-- Read a full transcript here.

-- If you missed the debate, watch a three-minute recap from our video team:

Welcome to the Daily 202, PowerPost's morning newsletter.
With contributions from Breanne Deppisch (@b_deppy) and Elise Viebeck (@eliseviebeck)

GET SMART FAST:

  1. Astronomers say they’ve found the biggest structure in the universe: Dubbed the “BOSS,” the collection of galaxies spans more than one billion lightyears across. (Sarah Kaplan)
  2. Top U.S. health officials called for increased federal funding to fight Zika, saying the mosquito-borne virus is linked to a wider array of birth defects and neurological disorders than originally thought. (Lena H. Sun)
  3. Iran vowed to keep firing ballistic missiles, saying a series of tests conducted this week are for “defense purposes" and do not violate U.N. prohibitions. (Carol Morello)
  4. The Justice Department filed a response to Apple in court, dismissing the tech giant's arguments over privacy as a “diversion" and saying arguments employed by the tech firm are overly-broad. (Mark Berman)
  5. The D.C. medical examiner says former Vladimir Putin aide Mikhail Lesin died of blunt force trauma to the head at a hotel here in November. He also suffered injuries to his neck, torso and other extremities. (AP)
  6. The Senate voted 94 to 1 to pass a bill to combat heroin and opioid abuse. (Karoun Demirjian)
  7. The Wounded Warrior Project’s board fired the charity’s CEO and COO after a preliminary financial audit revealed heavy overhead spending. The charity reportedly spent $26 million on conferences and meetings in 2014, compared to $1.7 million in 2010. (Thomas Gibbons-Neff)
  8. A white New York City police officer, who fatally shot unarmed black teenager Ramarley Graham in his home, is facing an internal investigation. (New York Times)
  9. A child found stuffed into a carry-on bag on an Air France flight earlier this week is now in the custody of local authorities. (CNN)
  10. On a Spirit airlines flight from Baltimore to Los Angeles, five women brawled over a particularly loud boombox. Passengers, who described the situation as “mutual combat,” captured videos of the women slapping each other and pulling hair. (Elahe Izadi)

MORE ON THE REPUBLICAN RACE:

 Ben Carson and Donald Trump in Houston on Feb. 25. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)

-- Ben Carson is endorsing Trump: The GOP frontrunner announced the endorsement at last night’s debate, saying the two discussed Carson’s ideas on education for more than an hour earlier in the day. "And he has such a great handle on it," Trump said. "I'm going to have Ben very involved with education, something that's an expertise of his." The two will appear at Trump’s Mar-a-Lago club in Palm Beach.

-- A pro-Trump super PAC hired Jesse Benton, the Ron Paul grandson-in-law and former Mitch McConnell campaign manager who resigned amidst a campaign finance scandal but was acquitted of federal charges last year. (Politico)

-- The pro-Cruz super PAC Trusted Leadership hired Chip Roy to serve as executive director. Roy was Cruz’s chief of staff during his first two years in the Senate.

-- Cruz won his first Senate endorsement -- from Utah Sen. Mike Lee. Lee said he was “sending the signal that it’s time to unite” behind Cruz. He's Cruz's best friend in the upper chamber, but he's also close to Rubio -- and had appeared at Cruz and Rubio events ahead of the South Carolina primary.

-- A group of GOP donors and strategists urged former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to pursue an independent presidential bid, citing a research memo that looks at the viability of a third-party run against Trump. (Politico)

A CULTURE OF VIOLENCE AND DISHONESTY PERVADES THE TRUMP OPERATION: The GOP front-runner is known to rile up his supporters with incendiary comments, encouraging supporters to “knock the crap” out of protestors and even once offering to pay the legal fees for those who do. “I’d like to punch [them] in the face,” Trump has said. It’s reached a new, more dangerous low in recent days.

-- A Trump supporter was charged after sucker-punching a protestor in North Carolina: “Videos show an African American leaving the Trump rally as the audience boos and he gives the middle finger. Then, out of nowhere, the man is punched in the face by a pony-tailed man in a cowboy hat as the crowd begins to cheer.” (Justin Wm. Moyer, Jenny Starrs and Sarah Larimer)

John McGraw, 78, was charged with assault and disorderly conduct in connection with the incident – but he shows no remorse. “Next time we see him, McGraw said, “we might have to kill him.” Inside Edition has video of the comment:

Trump supporters are rallying behind the assailant: “On Facebook, the group ‘Prayers for John McGraw’ appeared. Reached through Facebook, a person who claimed to be one of the group’s administrators wrote: ‘He punched an officious intermeddler.’ The person added: ‘It’s not like this was a BLM protest. Just a little poke on the beak. Cheapest lesson in manners this kid can get.’”

-- Meanwhile, Trump last night denied that his manager, Corey Lewandowski, touched Breitbart News reporter Michelle Fields (even though a Post reporter witnessed it). The campaign was silent for nearly two days about the incident. Then, they strongly denied anything happened and sought to smear the reporter with personal attacks via Twitter.

From the spin room after the debate:

-- The Post’s Ben Terris, who witnessed the Tuesday night episode, has written this account: “As security parted, Fields, a young reporter for Trump-friendly Breitbart News, pressed forward to ask Trump a question. I watched as a man with short-cropped hair and a suit grabbed her arm and yanked her out of the way. He was Corey Lewandowski, Trump’s 41-year-old campaign manager … Fields stumbled. Finger-shaped bruises formed on her arm. ‘I’m just a little spooked,’ she said, a tear streaming down her face. ‘No one has grabbed me like that before.’ … Lewandowski, a former state public safety officer in New Hampshire (who once was arrested at the U.S. Capitol for bringing in a concealed pistol), has personally helped escort protesters out of rallies.”

Ben’s broader piece looks at the dogged loyalty of those in Trump’s inner-circle, particularly the four who have stuck with him since he launched the campaign. (Read it here.)

Politico posted an 80-second audio recording (accompanied with a transcription) from the immediate aftermath of the incident.

Lewandowski denies having ever met her: “@MichelleFields you are totally delusional. I never touched you. As a matter of fact, I have never even met you.”

-- Fields appeared on ABC last night to discuss what happened. Displaying her injury, she said: “It’s been really hurtful, obviously no one wants to be touched and violated like that.” When asked if she could talk to Trump himself, Fields implored him to “put himself in my shoes and imagine if I was his daughter.”

-- Bigger picture, the violence that swirls around Trump could become a big liability in a general election. 

It truly is amazing that none of his rivals would condemn Trump for what happened in either North Carolina or Florida. David Weigel recaps the moment when Jake Tapper asked about it at the debate: “Cruz said confidently that ‘the frustration that is boiling over’ came from people feeling disrespected. And Rubio ran even further away from the context, opting — like Trump — to immediately change the subject from vigilante violence at a rally to how law enforcement officers ‘deserve our respect’ every day. The debate ended with none of Trump's rivals criticizing him for incitement, or expressly criticizing the violence that had swallowed a day of news — and more directly, injured a peaceful protester.”

Both Democratic candidates spoke out yesterday—

“As the campaign goes further, more and more Americans are going to be really disturbed by the kind of campaign he’s running,” Hillary Clinton said in an interview with Rachel Maddow last night. The former Secretary of State said she was “distraught and appalled” by the violent Trump rally. “You don’t make America great by dumping on everything that made America great, like freedom of speech and assembly and the right of people to protest,” said Clinton.

"No one in America should ever fear for their safety at a political rally,” Bernie Sanders said in a statement. “This ugly incident confirms that the politics of division has no place in our country. Mr. Trump should take responsibility for addressing his supporters' violent actions."

-- The press weighed in, including key people at very conservative outlets—

From National Review’s David French: “For those keeping score, the Trump campaign has responded to a credible, corroborated story that its campaign manager attacked a female reporter by (a) lying, (b) implying she made up a story that is supported by photographic and video evidence, and (c) accusing her of attention-seeking. The Trump campaign’s response has been beyond shameful. When faced with a corroborated, credible report of violence, its response should be to launch an immediate internal investigation and treat the alleged victim with respect. Instead, it responded with falsehoods and character assassination. But from the Trump organization would we expect anything less?”

As conservative commentator Ben Shapiro put it on Megyn Kelly’s Fox show last night: “If this had been (Clinton manager) Robby Mook dragging Michelle Fields down to the ground, there’s no question they’d be calling for Lewandowski, or Robby Mook in this case, to be fired. It’s ridiculous.” 

MORE ON THE DEMOCRATIC RACE

-- “Clinton’s stance on immigration is a major break from Obama,” by David Nakamura: Hillary's "pledge not to deport any illegal immigrants except violent criminals and terrorists represents a major break from Obama, and it could vastly increase the number of people who would be allowed to stay in the country. The declaration drew praise from immigrant rights groups, but it is not clear whether she would be able to keep the promise … In separating herself from Obama on deportations, she is seeking to galvanize the fast-growing Latino and Asian American voting blocs, who have demonstrated frustration with the president over deportations."

-- A group of top Democratic senators – the ranking members on the Intelligence, Judiciary, Homeland Security and Foreign Relations committees – complained that the review of Clinton's email practices by two internal government watchdogs has been unduly politicized: “In a letter to Intelligence Community Inspector General McCullough and State Department Inspector General Linick, [seven lawmakers] called on watchdogs to ensure that inquiries into the matter are impartial and diligent, and calling on them to do act ‘dispassionately and comprehensively.’ The letter points to a series of alleged errors by the investigators, and a report in the Hill newspaper that a whistleblower accused State's IG of having an 'anti-Clinton' bias. The lawmakers' letter also attaches a series of questions about those points [and] asks for details on whether either IG office may have been briefing journalists about the watchdogs' work.” Read the letter here. (Politico’s Josh Gerstein.) 

Actresses Kerry Washington, Shonda Rhimes, Viola Davis and Ellen Pompeo cut a 60-second ad for Clinton:

A new Sanders ad running in Illinois ahead of the Tuesday primary takes on Rahm Emanuel:

WAPO HIGHLIGHTS:

Judge Merrick B. Garland in 2008 (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak, File)

-- "Interest groups gearing up for what may be the biggest Supreme Court fight since Robert Bork," by Catherine Ho: "When asked if outside campaigns to take down Supreme Court nominees have gotten uglier since Bork, Tom Korologos — who served as a so-called 'sherpa' advising Bork, William Rehnquist and Scalia in their confirmation proceedings — said: 'Totally' ... Korologos said he “caught hell” from conservatives for choosing not to turn the Bork confirmation into a political campaign. 'The Bork allies were all over me for not buying ads, not starting up war rooms,' he said. 'I argued back, ‘This is not a political campaign.’ If the Founding Fathers wanted this to be a political election, we’d buy ads. But it’s not.'"

Always a bridesmaid. Never a bride. --> “Merrick Garland’s been considered for the Supreme Court before. Is this his year?,” by Jerry Markon: “To some, Merrick Garland’s experience and demeanor make him the quintessential Supreme Court candidate for a Democratic president. A Harvard Law graduate, he clerked for [liberal champion] William J. Brennan Jr.,  was a partner at a prominent Washington law firm, and ascended ranks at the Justice Department. Now, chief judge of the D.C. federal appeals court is under consideration to be Obama’s nominee … But Garland is a white male at a moment when Democrats may want a nominee around who they can rally minorities in the party’s base. Civil rights groups, for example, are pressing the nation’s first African American president to nominate the first black woman to the court. Longtime civil rights activist Barbara R. Arnwine said that while Garland brings ‘incredible qualifications’ she believes a number of female black judges are just as qualified. Nominating Garland, she said, ‘would send a message that the status quo of American privilege is still in place.’”

Separately, Lindsey Graham warned Republican lawmakers against blocking Obama’s Supreme Court nominee. The South Carolina senator urged Republicans to reconsider their decision at a meeting of the Senate Judiciary Committee, saying it was “just a matter of time” before the new precedent would come back to haunt them. “It’s going to happen on your side too,” he said. (Buzzfeed)

-- “This man is on parole. On Thursday, he registered to vote,” by Ovetta Wiggins: “Gregory Carpenter served 20 years in prison for armed robbery. He’s been out for 21 years. He’s gotten married, raised a family and bought a home— all the things he teaches other ex-offenders to do to turn their lives around. But, he admits, he has never felt whole … Carpenter, 62, is on parole, a stipulation under Maryland law that made him ineligible to vote. Until Thursday, when a new law took effect that allows felons who are on probation or parole to participate in the electoral process. Carpenter was among more than a dozen ex-offenders who completed voter-registration paperwork outside the Baltimore City Board of Elections office. Many, including Carpenter, said they were registering for the first time in their lives. After a divisive battle with Gov. Larry Hogan (R), the General Assembly voted last month to override the governor’s veto of its 2015 voting-rights bill. ‘It is a sweet and liberating moment,’ he said.”

SOCIAL MEDIA SPEED READ:

ZIGNAL LABS VISUAL -- The real-time word cloud from our analytics partners shows the prominent emergence of the word "civil":

First, a few great lines from last night's White House state dinner for Canada's prime minister (see the complete guest list here):

Earlier, Trudeau met a baby at the White House:

It was almost as cute as Trudeau holding two panda cubs (though that happened in Toronto):

Here's a shot of the Obamas meeting the Trudeau kids:

And of the Obamas at the State Dinner:

Watch Obama ask Trudeau, "Don't we look spiffy?" It's just after the one-minute mark:

CNN continued to mislead viewers by saying that last night's debate would start at 8:30 p.m. In fact, the debate started after 9 p.m. It's a thinly-veiled ploy by the cable channel to make a couple extra bucks from advertising revenue -- but it cheapens and diminishes their brand. It drove D.C. elites nuts:

From the reporter anchoring the Wall Street Journal's lede-all:

Some perspective:

Twitter reacted strongly when news broke that Carson will endorse Trump:

This was just four months ago:

(Here's a video of Trump imitating Carson.)

The Trump campaign is investing meaningful resources in GOTV in the Sunshine State:

Check out the ceiling at a Clinton event:

This dog took to the Trump pledge:

Senators hung out with the Trudeaus:

Jason Chaffetz posted his first quote in Sports Illustrated:

Finally, Thursday's sunrise in D.C. was gorgeous:

GOOD READ FROM ELSEWHERE:

Hillary speaks in Durham, North Carolina, yesterday. (Photo by Melina Mara/The Washington Post)

-- Is low Democratic turnout actually a problem for Hillary? A surge in voters during the primary elections doesn’t necessarily mean a landslide victory in the general election. Democratic operatives John Hagner and Paul Tencher break down some of the biggest turnout myths in an op-ed for The Hill:

  • There’s no historical correlation between turnout in primary and general elections: “The highest turnout in a Democratic primary was in 1988, and Gov. Michael Dukakis got killed in November. Low Democratic primary turnout in 1992 didn’t stop Bill Clinton from winning the general election convincingly.”
  • Voters don’t turn vote in primaries because they’re excited. They vote when the party nomination outcome is uncertain: “The outcome of this primary hasn't been in doubt for most Democratic primary voters despite a hard-fought race.” Hence, lower turnout.
  • Fear motivates voters: With 63 percent to 78 percent of Democratic voters endorsing their party’s primary candidate “no matter what,” there’s simply less at stake. In the general election, Democrats will embrace the nominee enthusiastically, while a Trump candidacy could fracture Republicans. 

HOT ON THE LEFT

Nancy Reagan watched thousands of LGBTQ people die of AIDS. From Teen Vogue: "The first lady notoriously had enormous sway over her husband, and could have intervened if she wished. She infamously tried to champion another epidemic of the era, drugs ... Despite Nancy Reagan’s glowing reputation as a first lady in other fields, her role in urging her husband to act, or not act, in the AIDS epidemic remains a point of contention for LGBTQ activists."

 

HOT ON THE RIGHT

Camille Paglia: I was wrong about Donald Trump. From Salon: "Trump’s fearless candor and brash energy feel like a great gust of fresh air, sweeping the tedious clichés and constant guilt-tripping of political correctness out to sea.  Unlike Hillary Clinton, whose every word and policy statement on the campaign trail are spoon-fed to her by a giant paid staff and army of shadowy advisors, Trump is his own man, with a steely 'damn the torpedoes' attitude."

DAYBOOK:

On the campaign trail: Here's the rundown for Friday:

  • Sanders: Raleigh, N.C.; Summit, Ill.; Toledo, Ohio
  • Trump: Palm Beach, Fla.; St. Louis, Mo.; Chicago, Ill.
  • Cruz: Orlando, Fla.
  • Rubio: West Palm Beach, Fla.
  • Kasich: Moraine, Ohio

At the White House: President Obama goes to Austin to participate in South by Southwest and a DNC fundraiser. Obama spends the night in Dallas. Vice President Biden returns from Amman, Jordan. Michelle Obama is in California for Nancy Reagan's funeral.

On Capitol Hill: The Senate and House are not in session.

NEWS YOU CAN USE IF YOU LIVE IN D.C.:

--It's shaping up to be a sunny, breezy Friday. Capital Weather Gang forecasts: “Any early morning showers should diminish rapidly, and clouds break up a bit as we get toward midday and into the afternoon. Most of us should find the “cooler” mid-60s to around 70 degree high temperatures fairly enjoyable.”

-- The D.C. government’s tax office erroneously withdrew $7 million from taxpayer bank accounts because of a ‘computer error, inadvertently processing the tax returns of 581 people who had previously authorized electronic bank withdrawals. (Shawn Boburg)

-- Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe vetoed a bill that would have prohibited cities and counties from removing Confederate war memorials, saying the legislation would “end discussions” over the matter that are unique to each community’s specific history.” (Jenna Portnoy)

-- Virginia lawmakers elected Appeals Court Judge Stephen R. McCullough to the state’s Supreme Court, ending a long and unpredictable battle over the appointment with McAuliffe. (Laura Vozzella)

-- A 46-year-old Virginia man was charged with burglary after posing as a buyer at open houses and stealing more than $15,000 worth of items. (Victoria St. Martin)

VIDEOS OF THE DAY:

Awkward! Former Jeb Bush communications director Tim Miller, now working for an anti-Trump super PAC, mocked a Trump supporter on his CNN panel for sitting in a booster chair:

Miller trolled Trump himself in the spin room, heckling him about where he bought his tie. Trump responded by mocking Miller over Bush’s loss:

Here's Canada's state dinner in two minutes:

The American Future Fund is out with another ad slamming Trump:

The mother of a Benghazi victim said there is a "special place in hell" for Clinton:

Finally, watch as an astronomer goes bananas while observing a total solar eclipse from a flight: