There was nothing seriously wrong with the Republican debate Thursday night on Fox News. It was lively, somewhat contentious and the moderators were exemplary in maintaining control.
But I have to admit, I kept shifting my attention whenever I thought I could get away with it to the screen showing Donald Trump’s counterprogramming event for veterans.
Trump’s production felt as haphazard and catch-as-catch-can as a telethon with him reading off the names of people who had made big donations and then hitting his talking points in a stream-of-consciousness manner. His big talking point was how we have to be strong – just as he was in boycotting the Fox debate this week -- and we cannot let other nations and people push us around.
As much as I despise what Trump and the greed of the TV news industry have done to debase presidential politics this season, I have to admit he makes for compelling television. And just the thought that he might say or do something unpredictable in his live production at this highly-charged moment in the 2016 election forced me to keep an eye on his screen until he left the room. I cannot believe others were not doing the same thing from the time he came before the cameras about 17 minutes after the Fox debate started.
I can’t wait to see the ratings, especially between that first 15 minute block in which Fox had the audience to itself, and that second block when Trump walked onstage. We should have some Nielsen answers later today.
I suspect Fox will still get relatively strong numbers, but I saw something onscreen Thursday night that surprised me: Megyn Kelly, Bret Baier and Chris Wallace, three veteran TV hosts, seemed to have lost some of their swagger.
Saying they were rattled by Trump’s pullout in the wake of a sophomoric statement from the channel that the candidate found personally insulting would be overstatement. They just didn’t seem as sure of themselves and confident as they did in the first debate.
Because they are all solid professionals, they came prepared -- no doubt about that. Kelly, who was the focus of much of the controversy as Trump tried to have her removed as moderator, opened with a cleverly worded question about “the elephant not in the room” for Ted Cruz, Trump’s closest challenger.
"I'm a maniac and everyone on this stage is stupid, fat and ugly. And Ben, you're a terrible surgeon," Cruz said pointing to Dr. Ben Carson, a former Johns Hopkins surgeon.
"Now that we've gotten the Donald Trump portion out of the way, I want to thank everyone here for showing the people of Iowa the respect” of showing up, he said delivering the punchline while taking a shot at Trump for being a no-show.
His words targeted the one area in which Trump could be vulnerable for boycotting the debate: with undecided Iowans who see his action as an insult to them and their caucus process.
Cruz later returned to theme after a testy back and forth with Wallace, saying in what appeared to be a joking manner, "If you guys ask one more mean question, I might have to leave the stage.”
But he had seemed deadly serious moments earlier when he criticized the moderators for what he characterized as four previous questions aimed at getting the other candidates to attack him.
Wallace gets major points for backing Cruz down when the Texas senator tried to talk over a Wallace question by claiming his name had been invoked in a previous answer and he had the right to respond.
But it had been invoked in Wallace’s question, not in anyone’s answer, Wallce explained.
“I know you like to argue the rules,” Wallace said to Cruz, but he informed the senator he would not be allowed to respond. They were moving on.
All three moderators came with at least one or two tough and highly focused questions. They were not pitching softballs.
But with the Iowa caucuses just four days away and six debates behind them, the candidates were repeating themselves to the point where I felt like I was sitting at play that I had seen before – several times.
One act featured Marco Rubio and Cruz attacking each other over amnesty and/or citizenship for immigrants with each calling the other a flip-flopper and/or liar. And once the two members of the U.S. Senate finished their verbal pas deux, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie once again stepped up and said what a hard time he had following all that Washington talk, which is why he, not they, should be president.
"Stop the Washington bull and let's get things done," he demanded.
But Christie had said essentially the same thing with the same timing at one or more previous debates when the two senators argued about their records on immigration and went deep in the weeds on what an amendment Cruz introduced really meant – or didn’t mean.
We won’t know what the week of fighting between Trump and Fox ultimately means until we have some ratings.
But I do know this: Fox, its moderators and indeed the entire GOP debate Thursday night seemed smaller and less important than they did in August.
Maybe that’s a result of the staging or just the process of all that has come since in this crazed campaign cycle where TV and media are more important than ever.
Fox better hope those are the reasons, and not that it and its hosts have somehow been diminished in the battle with Trump.
Standing onstage with Mike Huckabee and Rick Santorum, two previous winers in Iowa, the New York businessman certainly looked like a potent TV and political presence Thursday.