GWEN IFILL: The path forward, can Rubio survive? Will Trump wrap it all up? Will Kasich and Cruz surprise? And can Clinton shake off Bernie Sanders? Tonight, on Washington Week.
Another week, another GOP debate.
DONALD TRUMP: (From video.) We’re all in this together. We’re going to come up with solutions.
SENATOR MARCO RUBIO (R-FL): (From video.) Leadership is about using the anger to motivate us, not to define us.
MS. IFILL: But the candidates abandon below-the-belt attacks, for now.
SENATOR TED CRUZ (R-TX): (From video.) This debate is not about insults. It’s not about attacks. It’s not about any of the individuals on this stage. This election is about you and your children.
MS. IFILL: The stakes remain clear. Donald Trump, Ted Cruz, and Marco Rubio all campaigning today in Florida.
SEN. RUBIO: (From video.) It was always going to come down to Florida. This state is always in the middle of every political fight, and it will be again.
MS. IFILL: While John Kasich focuses on Ohio.
OHIO GOVERNOR JOHN KASICH (R): (From video.) I’m going to win Ohio. And Ohio’s going to be a new day in this race.
MS. IFILL: On the Democratic side, Bernie Sanders scores a surprise win in Michigan.
SENATOR BERNIE SANDERS (I-VT): (From video.) We have won – (cheers) – including Michigan last night, which some people considered one of the major political upsets in modern American history – (applause) – we have won nine state primaries and caucuses.
MS. IFILL: But with a lopsided win in Mississippi, Hillary Clinton is winning the delegate race, and striking out at Sanders.
FORMER SECRETARY OF STATE HILLARY CLINTON: (From video.) He voted in the House with hardline Republicans for indefinite detention for undocumented immigrants. And then he sided with those Republicans to stand with vigilantes known as Minutemen.
SEN. SANDERS: (From video.) That is a horrific statement, an unfair statement to make.
MS. IFILL: The race heats up as candidates from both parties tries to effectively clinch the nomination early, or deny it to a rival.
Covering the week, Jeanne Cummings, political editor for The Wall Street Journal; Doyle McManus, columnist for The Los Angeles Times; and Ed O’Keefe, national political correspondent for The Washington Post.
ANNOUNCER: Award-winning reporting and analysis. Covering history as it happens. From our nation's capital this is Washington Week with Gwen Ifill. Once again, from Washington, moderator Gwen Ifill.
MS. IFILL: Good evening. What has it come to when we praise a debate that did not include references to private body parts, but did include a defense of violence at campaign events? That said, there was substance as the four remaining Republican candidates, targeting next week’s Florida voters, talked about the Middle East, Cuba and Social Security. And although the candidates steered away from personal insult, that doesn’t mean they didn’t disagree. When Donald Trump, for instance, was asked about his statement that Islam hates America, he did not back down.
MR. TRUMP: (From video.) Now, you can say what you want and you can be politically correct if you want. I don’t want to be so politically correct. I like to solve problems. We have a serious, serious problem of hate. (Cheers, applause.)
SEN. RUBIO: (From video.) I’m not interested in being politically correct. I’m not interested in being politically correct. I’m interested in being correct. But you look around the world at the challenges we face, we are going to have to work together with Muslims who do not – who are not radicals.
SEN. CRUZ: (From video.) But the answer is not simply to yell: China bad, Muslims bad. You’ve got to understand the nature of the threats we’re facing and how you deal with them. (Applause.)
GOV. KASICH: (From video.) The fact is, is that if we’re going to defeat ISIS, we’re going to have to have these countries. And they are Egypt. And they are Saudi Arabia. And they are Jordan. And they are the Gulf States.
MS. IFILL: This week, vanquished candidates got their turn as Rubio, Cruz and Kasich met with Jeb Bush, and dropout Ben Carson endorsed Trump, the man who once called him pathological. His explanation:
DR. BEN CARSON: (From video.) There are two different Donald Trumps. There’s the one you see on the stage and there’s the one who’s very cerebral, sits there and considers things very carefully. You can have a very good conversation with him.
MS. IFILL: This was Trump’s oddly contradictory response.
MR. TRUMP: There are two Donald Trumps. There’s the public version, and people see that, and I don’t know what they see exactly. I don’t think there are two Donald Trumps. I think there’s one Donald Trump, but certainly you have – you know, look, all of this and you have somebody else that sits and reads and thinks.
MS. IFILL: Ed O’Keefe joins us tonight from Florida. So, let’s start with Florida. How critical is the Sunshine State, Ed?
ED O’KEEFE: Well, if you’re Marco Rubio, it’s everything that matters at this point to you. He’s a resident here of Miami. He’s in the hunt for the 99 delegates that will be awarded to whoever wins the state, campaigning across the state this weekend. He’ll be here in Miami. He’s in West Palm Beach, heading up the I-4 corridor, that area that stretches between Tampa and Orlando. He’ll go all the way to Pensacola in the northwest corner of the Sunshine State before coming back here to Miami to try to turn out every last supporter he can find.
Failure to win Florida essentially ends the Rubio campaign. Winning Florida allows him to stay in the race, but even then it’s unclear how exactly he’d get ahead to the nomination. And interestingly, today one of his campaign aides and then the senator later himself suggested if you’re someone who wants to vote for him in Ohio, they should instead go vote for John Kasich there, the idea being that together Kasich and Rubio in their respective states on Tuesday could at least slow the Trump momentum.
MS. IFILL: It should be said that Kasich people aren’t exactly accepting that deal. But let me ask you another question about Florida. Ted Cruz and his – or at least his super PAC, or a PAC that’s supporting him, they’re really going after Marco Rubio in Florida.
MR. O’KEEFE: They are. And, look, I mean, this is a contact sport. And everyone wants to win. And I think Cruz sees at least having Rubio lose here is a way to once again make the argument that he should be the guy to take on Donald Trump. Yesterday, just before the debate here in Miami that Republicans held, Senator Cruz’s campaign trotted out Senator Mike Lee of Utah, a man of who’s of the same age and the same conservative temperament as Rubio and Cruz, and he endorsed Cruz, saying that if Senator Rubio were to call him, he would suggest that he get behind Senator Cruz instead.
So the Cruz camp is definitely trying to goad Rubio out of the race. This is exactly what Rubio was doing to Bush just a few weeks ago, Jeb Bush, the former Florida governor, egging him on, trying to get him out of the race, getting under his skin in hopes that perhaps he’ll lose and get out quickly. We’ll see.
MS. IFILL: Well, let’s talk a little bit about what we are seeing, because you mentioned the Mike Lee endorsement, Ed. And we also saw, of course, today Ben Carson. We saw Carly Fiorina endorsing Cruz this – yesterday, I guess. So, Jeanne, what difference do endorsements make at this point? They seem to make a big splash for one day, and then they’re gone.
JEANNE CUMMINGS: Well, it helps you get a headline. And in certain places, it might help a little bit with voters that, you know, had chose these prior candidates – these candidates prior to that. It might help with donors because, you know, the money class is looking – they might look to their candidate for a signal of where their candidate thinks their money ought to go next. But they’re pretty marginal. I’d say the free publicity that comes with it is probably the most valuable thing that they get out of it.
MS. IFILL: I think I read somewhere this week that Ben Carson was happy that he had got – still had some support in Florida, and maybe that caught Donald Trump’s eye as well. So let’s talk about Donald Trump and – the two Donald Trumps, Doyle. I didn’t know what to make of that today. That, combined with the subdued performance last night. He seemed to be very interested in letting people know he’s a thinker, he’s a presidential person.
DOYLE MCMANUS: Well, there are, in that sense, two Donald Trumps. I’m not sure I ever would have used the word Ben Carson chose, which was “cerebral,” but –
MS. IFILL: He also said “spiritual” at a different point.
MR. MCMANUS: But maybe there may be depths there that those of us on the outside haven’t seen. But clearly in the debate Donald Trump had chosen to be the calm, quiet, statesmanlike Donald Trump. And that’s actually a turn he’s been trying to make for a couple of weeks. That previous debate they wouldn’t let him get away with it. But he’s been trying to say: I can be diplomatic. I can be statesmanlike. I can unify this party. Incidentally, I think that’s the other value of those endorsements.
What those endorsements mean is that in all likelihood all of these other candidates who have pledged to support the nominee, they’ll be there. I don’t think we’re going to see huge walkouts from the Republican Party if Trump continues to stay in the lead. In a sense, we’re seeing that kind of psychology take hold. Anyway, in the debate Donald Trump was clearly employing the strategy of a frontrunner trying to protect his lead.
MS. CUMMINGS: The problem with the strategy was once – you know, it’s been a long time since we saw one of their debates where it didn’t involve some craziness, right? So this one stuck to policy. And as quiet as it became, over the course of that debate I thought over and over again you could see that it became – it exposed the fact that so many of Trump’s policy positions are not at all grounded in, you know, real research, real good advice, study, experience, learning – nothing. I mean, Rubio killed him on –
MS. IFILL: He’s doing a lot of reading and thinking, but it doesn’t show on the debate stage.
MS. CUMMINGS: Yeah. But Rubio killed him on Castro. And Kasich could take him out on budget issues. And you know, all three of them showed the depths of, you know, their experience and familiarity with public policy.
MS. IFILL: Ed, in fact Rubio did have a good debate last night, for all the purposes – all the difference it makes at this stage. What is – how is he doing overall in this do-or-die state, and does it matter if he has a good debate?
MR. O’KEEFE: Well, I think he needed to have one in order to win over potentially undecided or skeptical voters who were wondering whether or not he was really still up to the task. And I think he went full Florida last night, if you will, in defending his calls to reform Social Security, something he reminded the crowd he had campaigned on in 2010 with great success, despite the fact that Florida is home to so many people who benefit from Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security.
And then, of course, his answer on Cuba, that’s exactly what you would expect from him. He remains an ardent opponent of the Castro regime, and is a big critic of what the president is planning to do later this month in going there. If you look at the race itself, those of us at The Washington Post and our friends at Univision had a poll out this week that suggests it’s a seven-point race, other surveys here put it at a six-point race. One had it at a 20-point race with Trump in the lead every single time.
MS. IFILL: With Trump in the lead? Yeah.
MR. O’KEEFE: Yeah. Rubio is hoping that through this weekend – early voting continues through Sunday – that he can continue to turn out supporters, especially those here in Miami-Dade County. And there are tens of thousands of absentee ballots still not yet returned. The Rubio campaign’s out there looking to make sure that they get put in the mailbox.
MS. IFILL: But there was a picture that went out after his Hialeah appearance earlier this week which showed how empty his rally was, which is something – since that’s his, like, hometown.
MR. O’KEEFE: It’s stunning. Imagine if Ted Cruz went home to Houston, if John Kasich did something in Columbus, or Donald Trump did something at Trump Tower and he didn’t fill the room. That’s essentially what happened. It was a football field in Hialeah on Wednesday night. Anywhere from 200 to 500 people were there. The crowd count was a little low. Either way, it was an empty stadium for the most part.
And I’ve talked to some supporters today who said, look, it was just simply bad logistical planning by the campaign, but that’s a complaint you’ve heard over and over again in state after state that’s voted so far, whether it’s Kansas, Nebraska, Tennessee, South Carolina. He shows up, he tries to make a big – you know, a big show of it. He gets some last-minute endorsements, some injections of support. And yet, for whatever reason, the campaign cannot deliver at the end. And that, I think, on Wednesday was a sign here to local supporters that the senator’s potentially in big trouble unless he can find all those voters, especially here in South Florida, to turn out by Tuesday.
MS. IFILL: I’m going to ask you all about unity. We saw that Jeb Bush attempted to meet with all the non-Trump candidates this week. We haven’t heard a lot about that. I want to ask you about that, Ed. But I want to talk to you both also about the value of unity at this point in the campaign. After this week, depending on the outcomes in Florida and Ohio in particular, is it possible – I guess it’s possible; we saw Ben Carson able to make up – for the other candidates to step aside? Or are they all – do they all see a tiny little path?
MS. CUMMINGS: I don’t think all of them will step aside next week. It’s entirely possible that Kasich and Rubio, if they lose, they’re gone. So that just leaves Cruz. Ted Cruz is the enduring question here. How long will he last, because there are a lot of challenges ahead for Ted Cruz. He’s said all along, I want to go mano a mano, get out of my way. If I do that, I’ll win. His problem is, that moment, if it comes next week, is coming at a time when the map is starting to move out of his southern comfort zone and into areas that will be much harder for him to attract his natural voters, his natural constituency. And if you look at the way Donald Trump is appealing to middle class or lower middle class, working class, people, we’re moving right into an area of strength for Donald Trump.
MR. MCMANUS: And, in a sense, taking Jeanne’s comment about the map going forward, there actually is a weird logic there for John Kasich to stay in the race if he wins Ohio.
MS. CUMMINGS: Because that is his – yeah.
MR. MCMANUS: Because, yeah, the next big states end up being Northeastern states – New York, Pennsylvania, eventually New Jersey and California. So if the strategy is not to win a majority of delegates, but to deny Donald Trump a majority and then have some kind of contested convention or lord knows what, then there’s actually a logic for John Kasich to stay in, even if he’s in third place.
MS. IFILL: And have we heard anything at all, Ed, about this Jeb Bush meeting – or series of meetings?
MR. O’KEEFE: We know they happened, because after all they were debating just down the street from his home in Coral Gables, and this was mostly sort of a courtesy call, was our understanding. There isn’t necessarily going to be an endorsement before Tuesday. I think the governor himself, according to people I’ve talked to at least, feel that he isn’t necessarily going to be able to contribute anything before Florida. That’s a knock, of course, at Senator Rubio, his former protégé.
But after the Florida primary, depending on how things shake out, I wouldn’t be surprised if he signals a preference, if only because there are potentially millions – maybe even tens of millions of dollars of financial support sitting on the sidelines right now waiting for a cue from not only Jeb Bush, but also the George Bushes, the former presidents. If they begin to signal that they have a preference, whether that’s John Kasich or Ted Cruz or someone else, you might see at least financial support head in that direction.
But I’m with Doyle, Kasich especially, if he wins Ohio, you head into the mid-Atlantic next, you head into the upper northwest. You head out to California. There are a lot of Republicans out there who like what John Kasich is doing and talking about. And he has reason to stay in. It will be harder for Cruz, but I also suspect, based on conversations with people, that if Rubio gets out, a lot of the people who have been supporting him, especially the non-Floridians, would head in Cruz’s direction.
MS. IFILL: Fascinating. Well, let’s move aside from debates, because both parties are keeping a close eye on delegate counts. Democrats need 2,383 delegates to clinch the nomination. Clinton has the lead, with 762 earned delegates – not counting another potential 461 superdelegates, many of them party leaders – to Bernie Sanders’ 549 earned delegates. Republicans need 1,237 delegates to clinch. Trump has 459 right now, Cruz 360, Rubio 152, and Kasich 54. This is all according to the Associated Press counts. Which means, this week’s big Tuesday voting could make all the difference, Jeanne.
MS. CUMMINGS: Well, it can, especially on the Republican side. On the Republican side, Florida and Ohio are winner take all. They are the first states that are going to hand out their delegates in that fashion. And so that’s about a little over 160 – almost 170 delegates just in those two states that one person could pocket or, as what they’re trying to do now, create a split decision to make sure that that one person isn’t Donald Trump. And I think one of the reasons that we see all this focus on those two states is because of the – beyond the fate of the two candidates – is that the other three states, that are big states that are voting on Tuesday – Illinois, North Carolina, and Missouri – but they’re doing this proportionate split, just like the states prior. So it’s not – the bounty is not so great in those three states.
MS. IFILL: And what is the Democrats’ math, Doyle?
MR. MCMANUS: On the Democratic side, it’s a whole different picture, because you don’t have winner-take-all states, and Hillary Clinton has those superdelegates right now. If you add the superdelegates to her number, and assume they stay with her – which they will if she continues in the lead, she’s already got more than half – just over half the delegates she needs. Now, the Sanders campaign has, understandably, said: Pay no attention to those superdelegates. If Bernie Sanders takes the lead in the pledged delegates, the ones people actually voted for, they’ll shift. They’re absolutely right. But Bernie Sanders has to do amazingly well. He’s got to get something like 60 percent of the votes in all the primaries left to get to that point. Bernie Sanders really has to draw an inside straight to win this thing.
MS. CUMMINGS: And he’s 200 points behind her, or 200 delegates behind her. And in the 2008 primary, President Obama’s lead on Hillary Clinton was never that big. It is bigger than any gap – any advantage he ever had over her in pledged delegates.
MS. IFILL: So is there an avenue for a unity appeal on the Democratic side, the way that you hear the Republicans pivoting, where Hillary Clinton can appeal to progressives, for instance?
MR. MCMANUS: Yes, and she’s already laid the groundwork for that. She’s started doing that. In a lot of her speeches she sounds just like Bernie Sanders. And in a sense, both tickets, but Hillary Clinton in particular, have an ace in the hole, and that is both Bernie Sanders – Bernie Sanders has publicly pledged to support and endorse the nominee of the party, whoever it turns out to be, and my best understanding is Elizabeth Warren will also endorse Hillary Clinton once she’s got the nomination wrapped up.
MS. IFILL: But not before.
MR. MCMANUS: But probably not before. So once she has those two endorsements, and Elizabeth Warren, at least, would probably go out on the campaign as a surrogate for her, she’s got a real strong pitch to progressives.
MS. IFILL: But this gives Bernie Sanders some delegates to take to the convention where it gives him a platform, right?
MS. CUMMINGS: Yes. I think Bernie Sanders has earned his speech, which is usually what a challenger who’s not going to make it really, really wants. And they want a high profile speech at the convention. And I think if Bernie asked for that the answer, if Hillary wins, is going to be a very swift sure thing, you got it.
MS. IFILL: Kind of a no-brainer. Yeah.
Well, OK, thank you both very much. And thank you Ed in Miami. We have to leave you all a few minutes early this week to give you the chance to support your local station, which in turn supports us. But before you go, we want to acknowledge the passing of the woman who redefined the power of the first lady. Nancy Reagan, unalterably loyal to her husband, but unafraid to insert herself into West Wing policy and politics. Mrs. Reagan launched the Just Say No anti-drug campaign, and also became an outspoken crusader for stem cell research after President Reagan was later diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. She will be buried beside her husband at the Reagan Presidential Library. She was 94 years old.
We’ll talk some more about Mrs. Reagan’s legacy on the Washington Week Webcast Extra. You can find it at PBS.org/WashingtonWeek. And keep up with daily developments, including next week’s big primary results, with Judy Woodruff and me on the PBS NewsHour. Don’t forget to spring your clocks ahead this weekend, and get a little more daylight, and we’ll see you right here next week on Washington Week. Good night.