First GOP debate was more like a reality TV show

Donald Trump fields a question during the first Republican presidential debate.

Donald Trump fields a question during the first Republican presidential debate.

(Scott Olson / Getty Images)
Theater Critic

The first Republican debate took the form of a reality TV show contest with a novel theatrical twist: Each of the 10 leading candidates competed to become the true protagonist of a GOP primary contest so overcrowded there was an earlier debate featuring seven other contenders with lower poll numbers — a discounted “happy hour” prelude to the much-coveted prime-time Bacchanalia.

Just before the official start of the big shindig, the Fox moderators, dominated by Megyn Kelly’s eyelashes, bantered awkwardly with the political hopefuls who were lined up as though preparing to perform “Seasons of Love” from “Rent.”

But once underway, this political drama, presented by Fox News channel and Facebook, didn’t follow the zingy rules of Broadway musicals. The playbook came straight from Bravo’s “Real Housewives” franchise, with Kelly and her sidekicks, Chris Wallace and Bret Baier, looking to stir controversy at every opportunity to keep viewers from tuning out.


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The expectation was that Donald Trump, the current front runner, would vociferously steal the show, with his billionaire bull in a Wal-mart shtick. But though his hair remained relatively in place, he seemed discomposed from the get-go after the audience reacted negatively to his refusal to pledge his support for the Republican nominee regardless of who it might be.

On the big stage, Trump’s crooked straight talk lacked the ease of the mild-mannered political doublespeak of some of his rivals. While they would break out into stump speeches whenever cornered, he seemed frustrated that he couldn’t resort to his usual Trump card, “You’re fired!”

Kelly called Trump to task for calling women he didn’t like “fat pigs, dogs, slobs and disgusting animals, “ to which the real estate magnate replied, “Only Rosie O’Donnell.”

It was one of his few remarks that elicited raucous laughter from the partisan crowd, but the line only threw his unsuitability as a candidate into ugly relief. His swagger seemed as artificial as his dye job.

When he was challenged on his company’s bankruptcies, he equivocated that he himself had never personally gone bankrupt (a point of contention he had long ago with O’Donnell during her first stint on “The View”). He then bragged that he had “taken advantage of the laws of this country” for personal gain, an admission that sealed his fate as a carnival sideshow tumbling out of the spotlight.

The evening wasn’t evenly divided among the candidates. Neurosurgeon Ben Carson was grilled early on about lapses in his knowledge of foreign policy; when Kelly came back to him much later with another question, he expressed gratitude that she remembered he was still on stage.

One could be forgiven for assuming that the Fox, eh, fix was in for Jeb Bush, who appeared to be the debate’s favored candidate by default. The cameras kept coming back to his genial visage, anointing it with airtime, a special dispensation for being thought the party’s best hope against the likely Democratic nominee, Hillary Clinton.

His performance may not have won many converts, but Bush proved himself an adept wiggler, getting around questions about his brother’s presidency and the Iraq war without saying anything definitive or too damning.

If the evening’s script had an author, it may very well have been the invisible wizard of Oz, Rupert Murdoch, who certainly wouldn’t want to promote anyone misguided enough to give Clinton her due.

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Marco Rubio, who was probably the most charismatic of the candidates, had the temerity to suggest that if the race came down to a resume contest, then the former secretary of State and New York senator is sure to win. He was trying to make the point that this presidential election had to be about the future, not the past, and that new generational blood was badly needed.

But he appeared to pay a price for his tactical error. Rubio wasn’t allowed many subsequent opportunities to shine, though his style was crisp and his delivery clean, and he no doubt put fear into Clinton supporters, who know only too well what an upstart senator with eloquence and conviction can do.

As Trump melted before our eyes, the fear that the circus had lost its main attraction was palpable. After a heated back-and-forth between New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and Sen. Rand Paul, Kelly thanked the gentlemen for providing some belated color to the otherwise bland proceedings.

Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, considered a star political actor by pundits, turned in a middling performance. Perhaps this is why he invoked the phrase “aggressively normal” to describe himself in his closing statement--if he couldn’t be virtuosic, at least no one could deny his straight white male bona fides.

Mike Huckabee chomped on his share of social conservative red meat, Sen. Ted Cruz explained why he’s such a divisive figure in Washington and Ohio. Gov. John Kasich was fed mostly softballs as a reward for serving as the welcoming committee of the debate, held in the arena where LeBron James plays for the Cavaliers. (Clearly, the GOP was hoping that some of James’ magic would rub off.)

The debate, which made ample room for the candidates’ hardscrabble biographies, had precious little time for the Black Lives Matter movement, economic inequality or the skyrocketing cost of higher education. To progressives, this must have seemed like tragedy masquerading as farce. But the Republican primary is a serial drama with many more episodes to go, even if a Bush conclusion is all but foregone.

With that in mind, Murdoch might want to go easy on Trump for the next few months. He may not be presidential, but he’s a boon for ratings.


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