The only thing missed in CNN's debate showmanship last night was having one of the candidates (Jon Huntsman, please) voted out. Other reality show/game show/sports elements-throbbing music, cheering audience, dramatic introduction of contestants-were all present.
The show started with a notice of thrills to come: "Eight candidates. One stage." CNN gave each candidate a label: Rick Perry is "The Newcomer," Mitt Romney is (inaccurately) "The Frontrunner," Rick Santorum is "The Fighter," and-my favorite-Newt Gingrich is "The Big Thinker." Someone at CNN must love one of my favorite movies, The Great Escape from 1963, which had James Garner as "The Scrounger," Charles Bronson as "The Tunnel King," and Richard Attenborough as "Big X."
Wolf Blitzer played "The Ringmaster," shouting after the introductions, "Ladies and gentlemen, the eight Republican presidential candidates." CNN brilliantly stationed Perry and Romney next to each other in the middle of the stage. Then came the singing of the national anthem, complete with a waving flag on the electronic scoreboard: Points for The Frontrunner and The Fighter, who mouthed the words as the other six candidates stood stolidly.
Overall, The Newcomer scored the most points by maintaining his assault on Social Security but explaining that it was "slam-dunk guaranteed" for folks already on Social Security or close to it, yet not for the young and for mid-career people. The Newcomer turned the tables on The Frontrunner by accusing him of trying to scare the elderly by making it seem their dollars would be taken away, but The Big Thinker won the round by saying President Obama was scaring people every day.
And so it went. The Ringmaster often threw out-of-context statements at the contestants (excuse me, candidates) to get a rise out of them. The result was lots of heat and little light. Overall, I thought The Newcomer did well and The Firebrand (Michele Bachmann) started no fires. But what truly astounded me was the format.
Many past debates have tried to be serious and sometimes solemn, but such a format clashes with the gotcha or frivolous questions journalists tend to ask and the superficial sound bites with which candidates tend to respond. CNN, though, delivered super entertainment by achieving a unity of content and style. We could enjoy it more if we weren't facing such a crucial election.