Strong GOP debate marred by CNN's lust for conflict

Chris Christie uses TV most effectively in his shot on the big stage.

CNN did a couple of things much better this time around than it did in its September Republican debate. As a result, it was a more informative telecast.

First, the cable news channel cut the time of the debate down by about 30 minutes, which was a blessed relief from that first marathon. Second, moderator Wolf Blitzer generally maintained much tighter control over the candidates than did Jake Tapper in that September shout fest.

Still, there were major issues with last night’s Las Vegas production.

My biggest complaint was how relentless CNN was in trying to force conflict between the candidates.

Of course, conflict makes for more engaging TV. But CNN did not have to be so heavy-handed in constantly trying to pit one candidate against the other. With a candidate like Jeb Bush looking as if he was down to his last bullet and fighting for his life, the conflict would have been there without the loaded questions from moderators and a steady stream of two-shots trying to portray opponents as combatants.

The most obvious questions in this regard came not from Blitzer, but rather the sub-moderating team of radio host Hugh Hewitt and CNN correspondent Dana Bash. I wonder if that was a conscious strategy by CNN to not make Blitzer the heavy handed questioner.

It got to the point where I was actually happy to hear frontrunner Donald Trump call out CNN after Hewitt tried to tee him up for another attempt at a verbal attack by Bush.

“I think it’s very sad that CNN tries to lead Jeb Bush, Governor Bush, down a road where it’s all, ‘Mr. Trump this,’ and ‘Mr. Trump that,’” the businessman said.

When Hewitt tried to protest, Trump cut him off with, “I think it’s very unprofessional. I think it’s very unprofessional.”

Later, Bash tried to put Trump and Ted Cruz at each throats by asking Trump how he could have questioned Cruz’s temperament and described him as behaving like a “maniac” in the Senate when he had previously said he thought the Texas senator would be a good running mate.

“But I got to know him the last three or four days, and he’s got a wonderful temperament,” Trump said, reaching over and patting Cruz on the back. “He’s just fine. Don’t worry about it.”

Bash seemed speechless for a couple of beats before saying, “OK,” to much laughter from the audience.

But she then tried to goad Cruz into saying Trump lacked the presidential temperament.  But having seen how well the smiley-face, high road worked for Trump, Cruz wasn’t playing her game either.

Trump didn’t have a great night. But he looked good enough in those two moments, and you have to believe they played well with many GOP voters watching at home.

Trump did bare his teeth a little with Bush, who came straight out of the box flailing away at the frontrunner from the very first question.

Bush even tried the tactic Trump used in earlier debates of interrupting and talking over his opponent.

“Are you going to let me finish?” Trump snapped at one point when Bush interrupted him.

“A little of your own medicine there, huh?” Bush said as Trump tried to resume his answer. But it was one step too far into the lion’s den by the failing candidate.

“I know you’re trying to build up your energy there, Jeb. But it’s not working,” Trump said dismissively.

At another point when Bush tried to muscle up verbally on Trump, the businessman mockingly said in his best New York voice, “Yeah, you’re tough, Jeb.”

Bush just cannot project any strength on TV. Maybe it’s the glasses he wears, but he has the distracted, hopelessly vague look of a prep school headmaster who is about two beats behind the student conversations swirling around him.

Of all the candidates, none used TV more effectively than New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie. What he did was simple: looking into the camera at keys points during his answers rather than at his opponents or the moderators. It communicated a sense of focus and sincerity that no one else onstage was able to match.

That visual cue synched up perfectly with Christie’s rhetorical strategy of making one point over and over again: Americans are more frightened of terrorism than at any time since 9/11, and he’s the guy who can make us feel safe again. Christie reminded viewers repeatedly that he spent seven years as a prosecutor after 9/11 working with law enforcement officials to fight terrorism, and he understands that Job One for the president is public safety.

He hit that message hard coupling it with tough attacks on President Obama, whom he called “a feckless weakling.”

In TV terms, it allowed Christie to hold the stage whenever he opened his mouth like no one else in the debate. We’ll see if it translates into votes in New Hampshire.

CNN’s worst sins in its lust for conflict came in all the time it provided for Cruz and Marco Rubio to go at each other over their votes in the Senate. You could tell the two didn’t like each other, but it was hard to follow all the spin and counter-spin about who voted for what and what it did or didn’t say about them.

Blitzer should have stepped in after the first back-and-forth went too long and either tried to clarify the discussion or put an end to the bickering that took both men right down a rabbit hole. Or, the producer should have quickly figured it out and told Blitzer he didn't want the debate going there again.

One of the night's strangest lines of questioning came when Hewitt asked Dr. Ben Carson if he would be "tough" enough to kill thousands of children if that's what it took for him as commander in chief to defend the nation.

The question was better suited for the sorry excuse of a debate that took place on CNBC in October than it was this CNN production. I have no idea what Hewitt was thinking.

Overall, though, it was a pleasure to hear what was mostly an impassioned discussion of terrorism and national security for more than two hours in prime time.

This is a highly jittery nation in the wake of Paris and San Bernardino. If nothing else, CNN’s debate last night spoke directly to that fear.

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