Critic's Notebook: GOP Debate or Schoolyard Brawl?

Donald Trump during the Dec. 15 GOP debate.

Heated fights break out between Trump and Bush, Cruz and Rubio, Rubio and Paul, and Paul and Christie in this particularly contentious debate focused on the war on terror.

America, you can rest easy. Donald Trump and Ted Cruz have kissed and made up.

The former best buds have been at odds recently, with Trump declaring that Cruz was too much of a "maniac" to be president. Cruz, upping the intellectual ante of the exchange, responded by tweeting a link of the Flashdance song of the same name.

But at Tuesday night's (Dec. 15) candidate debate held in Las Vegas, Trump effusively declared of Cruz, "I've gotten to know him over the last three or four days. He's just fine. He's got a wonderful temperament."

It made you wonder exactly what the two men had been up to. But as everyone knows, what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas.

Early in the evening, journalist Hugh Hewitt described the event as the "Christmas dinner debate." If so, it's going to be one miserable holiday meal, with Krampus more likely to come down the chimney than Santa Claus.

The entire debate had an apocalyptic tone, with the candidates desperately attempting to outdo each other in describing the dire state of affairs in the country in the scariest of terms. It was a wonder that they all refrained from warning about an asteroid heading toward Earth.

The Vegas location brought out the worst in both the candidates and the crowd. Perhaps fueled by the 24-hour party atmosphere, the candidates attacked each other viciously, with the crowd either cheering them on or booing as if they were Roman gladiators in an arena. At one point, Trump was heckled by an audience member and heated fights broke out between Cruz and Marco Rubio, Rubio and Rand Paul, Paul and Chris Christie, and especially Trump and Jeb Bush.

"You're not going to be able to insult your way into the presidency," Bush declared to his rival, even though Trump seems to be doing exactly that. At one point, the intense arguing and raised voices of the two men threatened to devolve into a schoolyard brawl.

Christie, clearly jazzed to be invited back to the grown-up table, must have been getting paid by some unknown party for every time he described himself as a "former federal prosecutor." During one of the more esoteric discussions relating to how Cruz, Rubio and Paul voted on various bills on immigration and the collection of phone records, he channeled the feelings of most of the viewers by announcing, "If your eyes are glazed over like mine …"

True to form, he did provide one of the evening's more memorable moments, by basically saying that he would start a war with Russia because, you know, he's "from New Jersey."

Paul seized on the comment, saying, "If you're in favor of World War III, you have your candidate."

Rather than looking offended, Christie's facial expression seemed to suggest that he was seriously considering it as his campaign slogan.

Speaking of facial expressions, Trump was the clear winner in that department. Although he didn't particularly have a strong evening verbally — he and his supporters will undoubtedly say otherwise — he did provide great entertainment value with his expressive grimaces that made him look like he was auditioning for a role in a silent movie.

At one point, he even complained that the CNN journalists were making him the focus of every question, as if he suddenly didn't want the attention. It made you want to ask, "Who are you and what have you done with Donald Trump?"

Carson, still displaying that bizarre lethargy that makes you wonder how he managed to stay awake during lengthy surgeries, admirably refused to take the bait of answering a question about whether, with his religious views, he would be ok with killing thousands of innocent children as collateral damage from bombing ISIS strongholds. But he squandered the good will by declaring a need to monitor "supermarkets" and "theaters" for anti-American viewpoints. And when he talked about his experiences during his recent trip to Jordan he sounded like a tourist who was eager to show you his vacation photographs. He also sounded far too much like a doctor when he made a reference to "terrorist malpractice."

Midway through the broadcast there was a commercial for the upcoming season of House of Cards, with Kevin Spacey's evil President Frank Underwood announcing, "America, I'm only getting started." The subliminal message to the electorate seemed to be, "If you really want to get tough with ISIS, support a real murderer for president." 

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Posted by CNN on Tuesday, December 15, 2015