Forget the debate: CNN orchestrates a political smackdown for GOP presidential candidates

Mere minutes into the second leg of Wednesday night's Republican presidential debate, Donald Trump offered his idea of foreign policy: Instead of fighting Islamic State in Syria, the United States should let the militants fight it out themselves and then pick up the remnants.

CNN seemed to have the same strategy.

After the high drama and higher ratings of last month's debates, the news network went "American Gladiator: Celebrity Edition," doing everything within its power to make the event a must-watch, live-tweetable, "anything could happen" political smackdown.

It wasn't just set in the Reagan Library, it was staged in front of Reagan's Air Force One.

There were time limits, but they appeared arbitrary. Cross-talk wasn't just encouraged, it was all but scripted.

"If you thought Round One was intense," one lead-in boomed, "wait until you see the second."

Intense is one way to describe it. So is overlong, shamelessly orchestrated and surprisingly effective. At three-plus hours (four-plus if you count the first low-poll-percentage debate), it may be the first Republican debate to qualify as a binge-watch.

Whether you judged them by proposed policy or perspiration rate — or just the stamina to remain upright while not leaning too much on the lectern — the 11 candidates displayed many facets of their leadership potential. Including and especially, their endless ability to respond to, and justify, campaign trash-talk.

Exploiting the in-your-face charms of and general fascination with the leading candidate, CNN opened both the first and second debates with Trump-centric questions.

In the first, moderator Jake Tapper asked Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal if he had violated Ronald Reagan's 11th commandment by criticizing a fellow Republican. (He hadn't because, according to Jindal, Trump is no Republican.)

In the second, Carly Fiorina was asked if she trusted a man with Trump's temperament to have "his finger on the button." Fiorina neatly sidestepped that but scored the evening's one slam dunk later in the event when asked if she bought Trump's backpedal on his widely publicized criticism of her face.

"I think women all over the country heard very clearly what Mr. Trump said," she answered with a smile.

It was that kind of evening. Because CNN wanted it to be that kind of evening.

Faced with so many candidates, 10 of whom were clearly determined to never be Trumped again, Tapper and co-hosts Dana Bash and Hugh Hewitt didn't just surrender the traditional role of referee, they often needled, provoked and framed even basic policy questions by way of the candidates' disagreements.

"Tell Gov. Bush/Mr. Trump/ Sen. Rubio why he's wrong on immigration/gun control/Planned Parenthood."

Not surprisingly, Tapper initially made Trump the center of these exchanges. Early on, Trump and Bush engaged in a "no I didn't/yes I did" spat about whether Bush had kept Trump from putting casinos in Florida, which Trump aced with a patronizing zinger: "Better energy than last time; I like it."

Soon, however, everyone was involved and, more significantly, clearly prepared for the fight.

Fiorina, the only candidate to move up from the kids table, hit the ground running, as did Sen. Marco Rubio.

Both offered detailed answers to questions about foreign policy that made Trump's vague assurance that he could get along with everyone seem, well, very vague.

Indeed, if CNN was hoping to find Trump's wilting point, it succeeded. By the second hour, the unabashed bloviator was strangely silent.

It soon got old, though. The cross-talk too often devolved into tetchy correction of minutiae, and at one point a very strange teardown of Chief Justice John Roberts, or just plain rudeness.

"You may have interrupted everyone else on this platform," Chris Christie shouted at Fiorina, "but you're not going to interrupt me."

As the debate entered its third hour, with no break from musical numbers or satirical sketches in sight, the questions, and answers, veered to the surreal.

Although Tapper refrained from asking what sort of tree each candidate would be, he did ask them which woman should be on the $10 bill. As soft a ball as can be thrown until Jeb Bush came to bat.

"Margaret Thatcher," he answered, insulting every American woman who ever lived.

mary.mcnamara@latimes.com

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