Debate Day-After: What Rivalries? GOP Candidates Play Nice

November 11, 2015 Updated: November 11, 2015

MIAMI—The elbows-out GOP presidential contest appeared on Wednesday to have entered a kinder, gentler phase.

Jeb Bush, the son of the president who popularized that phrase, pointedly refrained from going after former protege Marco Rubio. GOP frontrunner Donald Trump, previously the resident insult machine, did not speak ill of any of his Republican opponents during an hourlong interview Wednesday on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” show. Not of Rubio, who is rising in the polls. Not of Ben Carson, who has faced questions about details in his personal life story. Not even Bush, who Trump has frequently blasted as a “low energy candidate.”

“I am being nice. I’m trying to be,” Trump said during the interview on MSNBC.

The cease-fire by two of the race’s most aggressive candidates began during Tuesday’s night’s debate, may be forced by circumstance, and temporary. Bush’s criticism of Rubio for missed Senate votes had backfired on the former Florida governor, whose focus now is on projecting command of a tougher-than-expected battle for the Republican presidential nomination. Trump’s new diplomatic style, too, comes as he competes for Carson’s supporters, who mostly like the retired neurosurgeon for his even-tempered, pleasant approach.

However temporary, the shift in tone was dramatic for both candidates and reflects dwindling time remaining before the first votes of the 2016 presidential contest are cast in February. One more nationally-televised GOP debate remains this year, on Dec. 15, before voters plunge into the holiday season. The timetable means the coming weeks are critical for the remaining candidates in the unruly race to correct and focus their campaigns.

In the MSNBC interview, what former president George H.W. Bush might have called a kinder, gentler Trump, wouldn’t bite when asked to comment on how fellow Republicans fared in the debate.

“I don’t think anybody did poorly really. I really don’t,” said Trump. “Normally I should say they were all terrible, everybody, right?”

“I’ve actually become friends with a lot of the people that are up there,” Trump added, but did not name which opponents he counts as friends.

At one point, Trump declined to talk about whether Carson was qualified to be president. “That’s not for me to say,” he said, noting that he did have enough confidence in Carson to have him run one of his companies.

Previously, Trump had dismissed Carson’s surge in the polls and questioned Carson’s religious denomination, the Seventh-Day Adventist Church.

In Tuesday night’s debate, Trump played more the role of referee than rabble-rouser.

He complained about Ohio Gov. John Kasich taking too much speaking time from Bush.

“Thank you, Donald, for allowing me to speak at the debate,” said Bush sarcastically. “That’s really nice of you.”

For his part, Bush, who was in Iowa on Wednesday, was upbeat about his debate performance and did not utter a negative word about Rubio.

“It went good,” Bush said as he entered a grocery store in Johnston, where he poured coffee at the store’s annual Veterans Day breakfast. Potential caucus goers peppered him with questions about a nuclear-armed Korea, Social Security and veterans’ benefits.

Earlier in the day on ABC’s Good Morning America, Rubio, who has steered clear of making direct attacks against Trump, Bush or any other GOP opponents, squelched the chatter about how his former mentor may have snubbed him during a commercial breaking in Tuesday night’s debate. A video of the moment— not seen by nationwide television viewers— appeared as if Bush actually turned away from a Rubio overture.

“It may have looked that way, but that’s not what happened,” Rubio said Wednesday on ABC’s “Good Morning America. “We’re fine.”