Critic's Notebook: No Knockouts, but Trump Brings Drama — and Comedy — to GOP Debate

AP/Invision

Donald Trump was the main draw as he trashed, slashed and burned his way through an otherwise lackluster night of political theater.

You naturally would expect Ronald Reagan to be name-dropped during a Republican presidential debate.

But Rosie O'Donnell?

Yep, that's what occurred early on in the event presented on the Fox News Channel, when Donald Trump — you were expecting someone else? — responded to Megyn Kelly's question about his history of making disparaging and insulting remarks about women.

"Only Rosie O'Donnell," Trump responded, later adding, "What I say is what I say."

As if answering the viewers' implicit question of what it would take to make firebrands like Chris Christie and Ted Cruz seem like shrinking violets, "The Donald" provided most of the entertainment value in the overcrowded evening — although by his own inimitable standards he actually succeeded in seeming fairly restrained.

Still, one couldn't overcome the feeling that what he really wanted to do was simply announce to the other contenders: "You're fired!"

Red meat was handed to the large crowd in attendance at the Quicken Loans Arena (not exactly a dignified name for a venue in which the future of our country was being debated) with the very first question, in which the candidates were asked to raise their hands if they would consider running as an independent if they didn't receive the Republican nomination.

Want to guess who raised his hand?

Rand Paul fulfilled the pundits' predictions that it would be a low-polling candidate to vigorously go after Trump. He instantly went on the attack, although it seemed more perfunctory than heartfelt.

Ironically, the evening's most heated exchange was between Christie and Paul, who viciously lashed out at each other over the legality of the NSA's mass data collection. The argument provided more heat than light, despite Kelly's lame observation that it was "an interesting exchange."

To their credit, debate moderators Kelly, Brett Baier and Chris Wallace, all from Fox News, asked reasonably tough questions. Their queries were supplemented by those of Facebook users, often seen in computer-shot close-ups that unfortunately resembled hostage videos.

There were few surprises throughout the evening. Trump refused to back down from his provocative assertions that Mexico's government is deliberately sending illegal immigrants over the border. John Kasich, clearly enjoying what was described by one of the moderators as a "home field advantage," mainly stayed above the fray. Jeb Bush, who worked so hard to appear dignified and presidential that he seemed to melt into the woodwork, still had problems answering questions about the rightness of the Iraq War. Mike Huckabee relished the opportunity to once again decry the evils of abortion. 

Ben Carson, meanwhile, seemed happy just to be recognized. "Thank you, Megyn. I wasn't sure I was going to get the chance to talk again," he responded after finally being asked a question.

Not surprisingly, Trump provided most of the fun moments, whether describing reporters as "a generally dishonest lot"; dismissively informing Paul, "You're having a hard time tonight"; describing the lenders who lost millions when his companies went bankrupt as "total killers"; and claiming that the payoff for his campaign donations to Hillary Clinton was that she attended his wedding.

But he did demonstrate a kinder, gentler side when commenting about Obama's foreign policies."I would say that he's incompetent, but I won't do that because that's not nice," he said with a Cheshire cat smile.

Some of the candidates' answers were true head-scratchers, whether it was Huckabee explaining that he could solve the Social Security problem by ending congressional retirement plans; Bush summing up his grandiose economic goals by declaring that "We need to lift our spirits"; and Carson, in his closing statement, citing the fact that he had separated Siamese twins.

In true political fashion, the candidates mostly dodged and weaved through the questions. When confronted with damning statistics about the failing economic fortunes of their states under their leadership, Walker and Christie responded with statistics seemingly demonstrating exactly the opposite.

Some of the candidates scored fairly amusing, if undeniably well-rehearsed, one-liners. Walker pointed out, "It's sad to think that Russia and China know more about Hillary Clinton's email server than the United States Congress." And talking about the allegedly sorry state of our military, Huckabee said of our fleet of B-52s that "most of them are older than me, and that's pretty scary."

Ultimately, the evening produced plenty of hits but no knockouts, no doubt disappointing fans of political theater who were hoping for a bloodbath.

Still, it was hard not to receive the opening announcement that this was the first debate of the 2016 presidential campaign as anything other than a threat. At the end, a visibly relieved Kelly cried out, "It's over!" Viewers probably couldn't help but agree.  

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