Mitt Romney, Rick Perry toe to toe: A TV debate producer's dream

I expected the worst from CNN's debate Tuesday when I saw John King interviewing Wayne Newton outside the hall during "John King USA."

I know Newton is Mr. Las Vegas, but I still wondered why anyone at CNN thinks it is a wise use of one of the best political reporters in the country to have him doing pre-debate chat-ups with the likes of Newton -- unless he's talking to the veteran entertainer about the politics of too much cosmetic surgery. And King wasn't.

But any failings by CNN in producing the debate were probably forgiven by viewers once Mitt Romney and Rick Perry started slugging it out over immigration early in the two-hour program.

You can read the political analysts for the blow by blow. I'll just give you the barebones details that matter in TV terms.

Perry, who clearly "came for a knife fight," as CNN analyst Gloria Borger so eloquently (if not elegantly) put it in her post-debate analysis, went after front-runner Romney for having hired a lawn care company that employed undocumented workers.

Calling it the "height of hypocrisy," Perry faced the man standing at the podium next to his and said, "You stood here in front of the American people and did not tell the truth that you had illegals working on your property."

When Romney tried to respond, Perry kept speaking -- until all you could hear for a stretch was the anger in both men's voices, not the words they were saying.

"You have a problem with not allowing others to finish speaking," Romney finally said. "And I suggest if you want to be president of the United States, you've got to let both people speak."

Romney landed another dismissive, patronizing punch to Perry when he said, "These have been a tough couple of debates for Rick, and I understand that ... you're going to get testy."

If the words and tone of voices weren't hot enough for some, the physical act by Romney of placing his hand on the front of one of Perry's shoulders in an attempt to silence him was flame broiled. I cannot remember ever seeing two presidential candidates make that kind of physical contact in the middle of a heated exchange. In TV terms, that's an A-bomb.

Of course, the video clip was played and replayed and replayed some more on CNN post-debate.

There will be much morning-after debate, I am sure, as to whether for all that heat, there was any light shed Tuesday night on the stage in Las Vegas.

I feel as if there was. I learned a lot about Romney and Perry in that exchange. Romney is not afraid physically to stand toe to toe with Cowboy Rick, and that hand on the shoulder speaks volumes about how much Romney sees himself as the first among equals in this crowd.

Some might also see arrogance in Romney's gesture -- a sense that he is above Perry and has the authority to put his hands upon the Texan in a gesture of dominance.

Either way, in TV terms, this is the kind of moment producers fantasize about. This is passion, intensity and conflict defined.

Speaking of conflict, once again, Newt Gingrich couldn't resist playing media critic and reviewing the debate.

Near the very end of the event, Gingrich told moderator Anderson Cooper that while the format CNN used of "going back and forth" among the candidates in point-counter-point is good at generating conflict, "this bickering is not the best road to White House."

Gingrich essentially charged CNN with setting candidates against one and another, in effect, helping President Obama win re-election. The idea is that CNN was serving its own commercial ends of making entertaining TV, not the public-service goal of helping voters make the best choice for president.

I will leave that to commenters to argue.

Of course, CNN used the debate to some extent to serve its own commercial purposes. Every network or cable channel does that by having one of its stars moderate.

I do think, however, that CNN pushed the boundary in using the debate to try and promote its newest host, Erin Burnett, before and after the debate. Having her on a panel with the likes of Borger, King, David Gergen, Donna Brazile and Ari Fleischer was ridiculous. Burnett is nowhere near that league of political depth, insight and accomplishment. Such status cannot be conferred on someone simply by seating them at the table. It has to be earned over a period of time as each of those folks has done.

And it only got worse when Burnett disappeared from the panel right after the first commercial break just as Cooper and the panel came back and took up the matter of how the candidates handled questions about the Occupy Wall Street movement.

Burnett handled the Occupy Wall Street matter in such a disastrous manner on the premiere of her show that she is still being discussed in pejorative terms two weeks later. You can read my take here.

These debates are always a balancing act between commercial goals and the profound civic responsibility networks and cable channels have to serve rather than exploit the process of selecting a president.

Despite Newton, Burnett and a format that definitely did encourage conflict, I think CNN still gets  a passing grade in one respect. I now know more about the frontrunners (Romney, Perry and Herman Cain) than I did when I tuned in for an evening of debate watching -- only to see King trying to act like Wayne Newton had something worthwhile to say about presidential politics.