That was one of the most entertaining and informative TV debates I have ever seen - certainly with this many candidates involved. As big a political junkie as I am, most TV debates start to lose their edge for me after the first 45 minutes or so. But this one held me through the full two hours, and it ended even stronger than it began.
Give Megyn Kelly, Bret Baier and Chris Wallace credit for being well-prepared and sharply focused in performance through the full debate. But also give some praise to the producers who helped come up with the questions and set the tone and pace for the telecast. There was enough of a confrontational tone in the questions to regularly knock the candidates off the stump speeches in their heads and force them to focus on what the moderators asked them.
The producers wisely crafted this debate to the medium’s strengths, starting with a visual focus for the first question.
They knew they had celebrity and reality-TV star power in Trump, and they cashed in on it right off the bat with the opening question directed at Trump’s threats to run as a third party candidate if he didn’t get the nomination.
“Gentlemen,” Baier began, “is there anyone on stage – and can I see hands – who is unwilling to pledge your support to the eventual nominee of the Republican Party and pledge to not run an independent campaign against that person?”
Trump was the only one to raise his hand, and it was a great visual that focused attention on him, the candidate most of the audience came to see. It also created an emotional moment for viewers before they had barely settled in.
Unfortunately for Trump, it was mainly a negative emotional moment with some in the audience, booing as he held his hand above his head. It was the start of a bad night in TV terms for the Donald.
The producers, understanding that in primetime TV you have to keep the visceral moments coming, went to Kelly a few questions later with her asking Trump about some of the ugly things he had said about women.
Kelly versus Trump was a matchup many tuned in to see. Kelly’s persona is built in part on her ability to take down self-important, sexist, windbag men. Trump is all three of those things and then some.
“Mr. Trump,” Kelly said, “you’ve called women you don’t like fat pigs, dogs, slobs and disgusting animals. Your Twitter account …”
“Only Rosie O’Donnell,” he said interrupting Kelly.
“No, it wasn’t,” Kelly said as the audience applauded and whistled at Trump’s line.
Once the applause died down, Kelly, sounding like an attorney on cross examination, resumed by saying, “For the record, it went well beyond Rosie O’Donnell.”
“Yes, I’m sure it did,” Trump said dismissively.
“Your Twitter account has several disparaging comments about women. You once told a contestant on ‘Celebrity Apprentice,’ it would be a pretty picture to see her on her knees. Does that sound to you like the temperament of someone we should elect as president?”
You might not think things could not get worse for Trump at that point, but they did when he got testy with Kelly and said that while he’s been “nice” to her in past, maybe he was going to not be so nice anymore.
Say goodnight, Donald, with women watching all over America. For all your years on TV, you should have known how a confrontation like that between an arrogant man and a professional woman who looked like she was only doing her job was going to play onscreen.
Two weeks ago, I wondered in a post on this blog whether Kelly would be the one to put Trump in his place, and she certainly seemed to make a start in that direction at the debate.
The questions were also structured so as to put two candidates who were known to have different views on topics in dialogue and conflict.
Chris Christie and Rand Paul had an emotional but also highly revealing throwdown on NSA, national security and privacy.
Trumpeting his years prosecuting terrorists after 9/11, Christie mocked Paul’s high-sounding call for reform saying such talk sounds good when you’re “sitting in subcommittee blowing hot air,” but not when you are actually working to protect American lives.
But the best thing about the debate was that even though it was highly structured, it gave all 10 candidates a chance to have a moment or two – if they were good enough to grab it.
Marco Rubio did just that, saying that he’d like to see Hillary Clinton try to lecture him on living paycheck to paycheck.
“I grew up paycheck to paycheck,” he said, and still had $100,000 in student loan debt just four years ago.
It was a tight, strong statement, and good emotional moment that made the Democrat seem like the fat cat rather than the Republican.
Ted Cruz and Ben Carson had good, strong moments, too.
The biggest criticism: More time should have spent on Black Lives Matter, civil unrest, police-community relations and veterans. A quick question was asked on each by Kelly, but it wasn’t nearly enough – and it plays into what opponents characterize as GOP indifference to diversity and urban issues. Not having more on these topics was major mistake.
But in the end, for all the criticism of the selection process from analysts like me, I think tonight’s debate was a success. Fox News showed the other channels how to stage a winning debate. And some Republican voters found out maybe Trump isn’t as fabulous as he appeared to be.