Critic's Notebook: GOP Debate Ends With Fireworks From Donald Trump, Opponents

AP Images
Marco Rubio and Donald Trump at Tuesday's GOP debate.

Even with two candidates winnowed out, at the rate the Republicans are going, it will be several years before they narrow the field.

It had been going so nicely for a while.

For roughly the first two hours of Tuesday's Republican presidential debate, there was precious little rancor. Other than the occasional muttering about the "mainstream media," there was barely any contention between the candidates and the moderators. And then Maria Bartimoro made a reference to Hillary Clinton's "impressive résumé" while asking Marco Rubio why voters should trust him rather than someone with far more experience. Judging by the loud boos in the hall, you'd think she had asked him, "When did you stop beating your wife?"

Read more GOP Debate: Donald Trump Booed, Cheered While Ripping Opponents

To his credit, and no doubt reflective of having questioners from the Fox Business Network and The Wall Street Journal rather than the communist front that is CNBC, Rubio didn't take the bait.

"Well, that's a great question!" he answered with a big smile before he established his youthful bona fides by stressing that if he's elected president, "We will be the party of the 21st century."

The candidates — mollified by a strict time limit (which nonetheless failed to prevent going overtime), enjoying temperature controls low enough to keep even Rubio from breaking into a sweat and possibly receiving personal massages during the commercial breaks — had virtually no complaints about the moderators.

The debate, which began at 9 p.m. ET — or 9:05 or so, for those many viewers trying to figure out exactly where the hell the Fox Business Channel is on their program guide — was ostensibly centered on economic issues. But there was so much attention paid to foreign affairs and the military, including a spirited debate between Rand Paul and Rubio over whether a conservative could be in favor of pouring money into foreign intervention, that it might just as well have been broadcast on the American Heroes Channel.

Read more NBC Affiliates File "Equal Time" Notices for Donald Trump's 'SNL' Appearance

The roster was winnowed down to eight, with Mike Huckabee and Chris Christie failing to make the cut and relegated to the earlier kiddie debate. It was hard not to miss the big lugs, what with Huckabee's adorable sitcom-style jokes about his wife and Christie's lecturing everyone on what they should be talking about. During the quieter moments, you could almost hear the sound of the New Jersey governor banging on the doors demanding to be let in.

The debate was generally more substantive than previous ones, although there was inevitably no shortage of silly moments. Asked about the minimum wage, Rubio somehow segued to make the point that "welders make more money than philosophers. We need more welders and less [sic] philosophers."

Glad that got cleared up.

Carly Fiorina kept exhorting that, "We need to take our government back," apparently forgetting that Republicans control both houses of Congress.

Ben Carson, when asked about the controversy over the numerous falsehoods he's allegedly peddled about his background, thanked his questioner for "not asking me about what I said in the 10th grade." The line got the expected laugh, but when he went on to say, "People who know me know that I'm honest," it made one wonder if he personally knows enough of the country's 320 million-plus people to win the election.

Read more Donald Trump Suggests Starbucks Boycott Over Holiday-Cup Controversy

Donald Trump doubled, tripled and quadrupled down on his proposal for a wall along the Mexican border.

"We will have a wall. The wall will be built," he intoned, sounding as if he was quoting from the Book of Genesis.  

John Kasich seemed exasperated just to be on the same stage as the others, acting as if he were the only adult in the room. "It's a silly argument" and "Philosophy doesn't work when you run something" were typical comments. He particularly got under Trump's skin. The business mogul — constantly, er, trumpeting his business success — sneered, "You're lucky: In Ohio you struck oil," later adding, "I don't have to hear from that man." At another point, apparently looking to resume his romantic comedy-style bickering with Fiorina, he loudly complained, "Why does she keep interrupting everybody?"

Ted Cruz, uncannily sounding like Dana Carvey doing an impression of him, went on a rant about the negative economic impact that illegal immigrants have on American job seekers. He pointed out that the media wouldn't be so complacent if "people with journalism degrees were coming over and driving down wages in the press."

(Wait, is that a thing?)

Cruz's other memorable moment came when he managed to remember the names of all the Federal agencies he proposes to abolish. Somewhere, Rick Perry was dying inside.

FBC's Neil Cavuto actually asked Carson, "Whose tax plan would God endorse, yours or Trump's?" The neurosurgeon showed remarkable restraint by not delivering a direct answer, although he was clearly dying to.

Asked about how he would deal with Vladimir Putin's aggression, Trump replied that it would be no problem. "We were both on 60 Minutes," he comfortingly assured us. Fiorina pounced like a tiger, pointing out that "I've met him as well, … not in a green room at a show."

Finally, while delivering a personal anecdote about one of the many people he's met during the race, Jeb Bush referred to a woman named Regan Love. It was hard to tell whether she actually exists or is rather a fantasy Republican porn star name he dreamed up during a lonely night on the campaign trail.