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Why Donald Trump still dominates, no matter what

Thursday night's more subdued debate nonetheless showcased the performance-art quality of Trump’s improbable presidential journey.

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Businessman Donald Trump speaks during the Republican presidential debate sponsored by CNN, Salem Media Group and the Washington Times at the University of Miami, Thursday in Coral Gables, Fla.

Wilfredo Lee/AP

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Donald Trump pivoted toward a more presidential posture Thursday night, in the final Republican debate before next week’s potentially fateful round of primaries.

The GOP frontrunner issued no insults or crude remarks, he skipped the eye-rolling, and he talked policy, albeit in generalities and at times raising doubts about his knowledge. Mr. Trump also skipped the antic, infomercial quality of his latest press conference, where he hawked steaks, water, and wine. The billionaire showman even seemed a bit “low energy,” to quote the Trumpian epithet that helped sink the candidacy of Jeb Bush.

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But it was all still part of the performance-art quality of Trump’s improbable presidential journey, the idea being that no matter what he does, he commands the lion’s share of attention. And as in any compelling narrative, the story ebbs and flows, with moments of high drama, and quieter periods that allow everyone to catch their breath.

“I can’t believe how civil it’s been up here,” Trump said at one point, capturing the essence of the 12th Republican debate of the campaign.

Across the country, sighs of relief by Republican officials could almost be heard. The last debate had been such a debacle, memorable only for Trump’s off-color discussion of body parts. The substantive, dignified performances Thursday by all four remaining candidates pulled the Republican brand back from the brink.

Next Tuesday, the trajectory of the Republican nomination could be all but decided. Five states hold primaries, and in two of them – Florida and Ohio – all the delegates go to the candidate who wins the state. If Trump wins both, he has a near-lock on the nomination. If he wins one but not the other, he’s still well on his way. If he somehow loses both, then it’s a new ballgame.

By playing it safe at Thursday night’s debate in Miami, Trump was protecting his lead. The other candidates, too, also struck a presidential posture. For both Ohio Gov. John Kasich and Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, it was the final chance on national television to impress their home audiences. Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, second to Trump in the delegate count, also delivered a crisp performance.

To be sure, Trump continued to throw red meat to his supporters. When asked about a comment he had made this week in an interview with CNN’s Anderson Cooper, “I think Islam hates us,” he didn’t back down.

“Did you mean all 1.6 billion Muslims?” asked CNN moderator Jake Tapper.

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“I mean a lot of them. I mean a lot of them,” Trump said.

“There’s tremendous hatred,” he added. “And I will stick with exactly what I said to Anderson Cooper.”

Senator Rubio offered a strong response.

“I know that a lot of people find appeal in the things Donald says, cause he says what people wish they could say,” Rubio said. “The problem is, presidents can't just say anything they want. It has consequences, here and around the world.”

Rubio spoke of missionaries he met, on furlough from their work in Muslim Bangladesh, and about how their safety depends on “friendly Muslims” protecting them. He also referenced Muslim American men and women serving in the US military.

Ohio Gov. John Kasich also weighed in: “The fact is that if we're going to defeat ISIS, we're going to have to have these countries,” he said, referring to Arab Muslim world. “And they are Egypt. And they are Saudi Arabia. And they are Jordan. And they are the Gulf states.”

Rubio was also strong in his criticism of the Obama administration’s opening to Cuba, a topic of particular interest to the Cuban-American senator – and to the home crowd in Miami, the heart of America’s Cuban community.

But even if Rubio regained his footing in Tuesday’s debate, after a period of trading insults with Trump, it may be too little too late. Endorsements are now flowing to the top two contenders, with former candidate Carly Fiorina and Sen. Mike Lee (R) of Utah coming out for Senator Cruz this week – the latter, his first endorsement from a senator – and another former candidate, retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson, coming out Friday for Trump.

Trump’s at-times tenuous knowledge of policy hasn’t seemed to hurt him with supporters. And when he gets caught making loose comments in debates, he just barrels ahead, as with a question on the Common Core education standards.

“Education through Washington, D.C., I don't want that,” Trump said.

When Mr. Tapper pointed out that Common Core’s standards were developed by the states, and voluntarily adopted, with curricula also developed at the state and local level, Trump responded that “it has been taken over by the federal government.”

“The federal government didn’t ‘take over’ Common Core,” The Washington Post’s debate fact-checkers reported. “It still remains a state-led program.”

Trump was also called upon to explain the 45 percent tariff he has proposed on Chinese goods – a part of his larger trade plans that economists have said could lead to a global recession – and he backed down.

“The 45 percent is a threat that if they [the Chinese] don't behave, if they don't follow the rules and regulations so that we can have it equal on both sides, we will tax you,” Trump said. “It doesn't have to be 45, it could be less.”

It was Trump demonstrating his style as a wheeler-dealer – a looseness of language that, were he to become president, would take some getting used to on the world stage. But it is a style that has worked for him both in business and, so far, as a presidential candidate.

And in his subdued performance Thursday on the debate stage, on the eve of the most important primaries to date, Trump showed again how style can be more important than substance in the minds of many voters.