Now that was a debate. Back in 2012 it was the live audience that got rowdy at the presidential primary debates. This time it was the folks onstage, candidates and moderators alike. And somehow it all stemmed from the presence of Donald Trump, the spiritual epicenter of this event, whose outsize persona dominated the proceedings from beginning to end.
Things got off to a rollicking start with Trump's show-of-hands refusal to rule out a third-party run and Rand Paul's aggressive reaction. This riveting kickoff set a pugilistic tone for the debate that never subsided.
There was Megyn Kelly's question to Trump about the nasty comments he had made about women, with Trump returning fire on Megyn Kelly. Chris Christie drawing blood from Paul over government surveillance, and Paul reminding the world that Christie had -- horrors! -- hugged President Obama. Trump telling Paul, "I don't think you heard me. You're having a hard time tonight." Kelly asking Trump, "When did you actually become a Republican?" The action sprawled in every direction: candidate-on-candidate, candidate-on-moderator, moderator-on-candidate.
Among the debaters, three clusters formed: the brawlers (Trump, Paul, Christie), the grown-ups (Rubio, Kasich), and the irrelevancies (Bush, Cruz, Walker, Huckabee, Carson). Yet with the possible exception of Bush, even the irrelevancies had their moments. Indeed this was a debate long on YouTube clips and short on obvious winners. The two primary beneficiaries were the grown-ups -- Marco Rubio and John Kasich, both of whom managed to survive the mudslinging with their dignity intact. By floating above the fray, each man did himself a lot of good.
The losers of this debate? Jeb Bush and, in a more complicated way, Donald Trump. Bush was, in a word, awful. Every answer sounded as though it had come straight out of debate prep. Physically, verbally, visually -- any way you look at it, Bush is a supremely awkward television performer. During his attempt at a set piece, in which he criticized Trump's "divisive language," Bush could not even bring himself to look at The Donald, who was standing right next to him. Trump, in turn, went easy on Bush, sensing perhaps that Bush needed no dispatching after so many self-inflicted wounds. Over the long haul Bush's low-key presence may wear well, but meanwhile he missed an opportunity to make a big opening splash.
Trump, of course, is the opposite of low-key. Because of his familiarity with live TV, he stepped into the arena amid high expectations -- he would be right in his show biz element. What we learned is that debates are not Trump's milieu. He seemed unprepared for the moderators' sharp-elbowed questioning, and he forgot a basic principle: that debating is not the same thing as delivering a speech. He was loud, arrogant, boorish and hyperbolic -- a style that may work in front of adoring crowds, but not when you are one of ten competitors in a cattle show.
The three Fox News moderators functioned as a hit squad with Trump. He deserved the scrutiny -- after all, he is the front-runner -- but their approach also betokens a troubling reality of modern presidential primary debates: the networks that sponsor these events are direct participants in shaping the field, with a power to make or break candidacies that rightfully belongs to the voters. News organizations not only cover the presidential contenders, they decide which ones ought to get smacked around.
And make no mistake: Trump got smacked around. It remains to be seen whether this debate punctures Trump's balloon, but what happened to him on that Cleveland stage feels like a turning point. Trump arrived at the circus thinking he would be ringmaster, lion tamer, and trapeze artist all rolled into one. Instead the moderators stuffed him in a clown costume.