BOCA RATON, Fla. – If they had staged this presidential debate in Miami, they would have had to call it Miami Nice.

The extraordinary civility of a five-way Republican debate Thursday night, staged just five days before a Florida primary election that will prove critical to the fates of most of the candidates, underscores how concerned all of these Republicans are about alienating any potential voters here.

The roughest criticism was reserved for the party’s own president. The candidates were asked why, after seven years of a Republican White House which has overseen an increase in the national debt past $9 trillion, Americans should trust another Republican as president.

“Because you can be sure, if you watch the Democratic debates, that they will raise taxes,” said Sen. John McCain of Arizona. Then, leveling a criticism at his own party’s leader, he said, “The president of the United States signed into law two years in a row pork-laden bills . . . We could have given a $1,000 tax credit for every child in America for that $35 billion.”

Mike Huckabee, a former governor of Arkansas, said: “Let me remind you, I wasn’t in Washington . . . I wasn’t there messing it up.”

Mitt Romney, former governor of Massachusetts, said: “I’m not going to run on that record, I’ll tell you that . . . I’ll run on my own record . . . What I’ll do is run away from the record of Washington.”

Rudy Giuliani, former New York mayor, said: “I’m the only one who has actually turned around a government and economy . . . I’ve had the experience to do this in the 17th largest economy in the world, and I can do it for the country.”

Rep. Ron Paul of Texas said: “We can’t run on that program. What we have to run on is an old-fashioned Republican program.”

Giuliani, struggling to save his campaign in Florida, delivered only a sideways criticism in reference to McCain when speaking of a national catastrophic storm fund. McCain doesn’t support the plan while Giuliani does, billing himself in this storm-battered state as the only Republican who does.

With the 90-minute encounter staged on the campus of Florida Atlantic University behind them, the candidates now face a primary Tuesday that is critical for Giuliani, who has banked his candidacy on a big-state strategy.

Independent polls in Florida this week have portrayed a close contest between McCain and Romney, with Giuliani losing ground. A new survey by Mason-Dixon Opinion Research showed Romney drawing the support of 30 percent, McCain 26 percent, Giuliani 18 percent, and Huckabee 13 percent.

Considering how much is at stake in this contest for McCain, who hopes to build upon victories in New Hampshire and South Carolina, and for Romney, who needs a big victory, and for Giuliani, who hopes to revive his campaign, the candidates played this debate exceedingly cordially.

Giuliani, noting that Romney had asked him a “nice question” during a period when the candidates asked questions of each other, suggested that he will surprise his rivals with his performance on Tuesday. “We have them all lulled into a false sense of security now,” he said.

Romney, asked by the moderator if he trusts McCain or Giuliani on taxation, said: “I trust these two gentlemen and I respect them greatly . . . We do have different views . . . but I think all of us on this stage want to see taxes brought down, and we want to see spending brought down.”

They reserved their sharpest words for Democratic Sen. Hillary Clinton of New York, with Romney maintaining that credit for “success” in Iraq goes to Gen. David Petraeus – “not to General Hillary Clinton.”

Giuliani suggested that Clinton supported the war when Americans did and turned against it when Americans did. “I was for it when six out of ten were for it,” he said. “I’m for it when six out of ten are against it.”

Asked how they might run against Clinton, who is campaigning with the help of her husband, the former president, Romney said, “The idea of Bill Clinton back in the White House with nothing to do is something I just can’t imagine.”

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