Donald Trump Is the Republican Star

Dr. Ben Carson, left, watches Donald Trump criticize the business record of Carly Fiorina, far right, as Jeb Bush, center, and Scott Walker look on during the second official Republican presidential candidates debate at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, California, on September 16. Lucy Nicholson/Reuters

From the pre-game hype to kickoff to the post-game wrapup, the Super Bowl runs for hours and hours—but at least there's guacamole and friends and beer. There were no such comforts during CNN's production of two Republican debates Wednesday night, unless you have weird parties. The debate coverage was so long that if it had been an interrogation, you'd have ended up confessing to kidnapping the Lindbergh baby just to get it over with. Afterward, when CNN raced to interview Donald Trump—of course—he called it the longest debate ever, and for once it didn't feel like he was exaggerating.

Sports metaphors are a crutch that political reporters try to avoid, but one that CNN leaned on heavily. The opening graphics as the top candidates were introduced had an "And in this corner…" boxing match quality. Moderator Jake Tapper admirably said that the goal was to get candidates to mix it up, so lots of questions had a he-said-this-about-you-what-do-you-think quality, which may seem like a good idea but in practice made for a much less interesting night than the Fox-sponsored debate and Megyn Kelly's infamous quizzing of Trump. The CNN-inspired mini-dustups were mostly occasions for grandstanding, like when Chris Christie, who escaped the night without any questioning of his Bridgegate scandal, pooh-poohed Trump and Carly Fiorina for arguing like children about who was better at business. "You're both successful," he said. "Terrific."

Without Tapper's usually excellent, probing interview style, there were either you-two-go-at-it questions or eye-rollers such as, "What would be your Secret Service codename?" (Although "Humble" was a pretty good response from Trump, while "One Nation" showed why Ben Carson may be in the wrong field.) Meanwhile, when Jeb Bush said his brother "kept us safe," Tapper and the CNN interlocutors hung there with no follow-up about 9/11.

The debate's setting at the Reagan Library gave it a sleek and yet retro feel, what with the old Air Force One literally behind the candidates' heads. The sainted president was invoked so often you almost wish CNN had a CGI Gipper poking through the windows. Alas, the forum only allowed a modest audience that was more damping than enthusiastic, and seemed to be filled with donor-class party types rather than the more raucous throngs who were at the first Fox debate. If the campaign is a clash of network executives, you'd have to give the contest to Fox's Roger Ailes over CNN's Jeff Zucker—although, as one network broadcaster noted, CNN probably made more money on the night. (CNN's Gitmo-interrogation-session length meant more ads.)

Get Used to It

Former Texas Governor Rick Perry may have dropped out of the race, but everyone else did just well enough last night to keep on going. Among the establishment candidates, Marco Rubio and Christie did enough to energize their supporters and keep going. Outsiders like Fiorina, Carson, Ted Cruz and Trump did well enough to feel good.

With her glaring at Trump and the best lines of the night, Fiorina stood tall. Her jabs about how women knew what Trump meant when he dissed her face and how she didn't want to put a woman on the $10 bill was pitch-perfect Republican-style feminism. The CEO steel magnolia was lucky, though, that CNN didn't ask follow-ups about her ouster at Hewlett-Packard.

Even Scott Walker may have stopped his precipitous fall with a riposte about how we already have an "Apprentice" in the White House and don't need another one. Rand Paul showed some of the libertarian energy that's been missing for months when he chided Bush for smoking weed as a youth and locking up poor kids with tough drug laws. John Kasich's reasonable man mien has endeared him to the media and he did fine, too, but not as well as the first debate.

All of which means this is going to be a long slog. Interestingly, the ideological rifts in the party are, in the end, relatively modest by historical standards like Ronald Reagan vs. Gerald Ford or Nelson Rockefeller vs. Barry Goldwater. Cutting taxes, banning abortion, defunding Planned Parenthood, sealing the border, repealing Obamacare—none of these core issues were in dispute, which meant the debate turned on lesser issues of whether Washington should challenge Colorado's marijuana laws, and vaccines and autism.

The morning after, Trump told Morning Joe that he thought the debate was unfair to the other candidates because so many questions were about him. That's true. CNN used him in the cutaway shots. When he arrived in an SUV, CNN covered it live, as if it were the Popemobile and not a Suburban. For the media, he's still the sun king.

At times, the Trumpocentric view of the universe had a tragicomic quality. The undercard debaters had to endure four questions about Trump before their little-watched debate got going. In some ways that was too bad, because their contretemps was more interesting than the big show. It had captivating moments of sanity (George Pataki saying that government officials have to enforce the law on gay marriage) and oddity (Lindsey Graham's hyper-eagerness to send troops to Iraq and Syria). Rick Santorum actually said some important things about the party being too focused on entrepreneurs and not the vast majority of Americans who draw a paycheck.

The post-Citizens United world, with its billionaire backers and loose rules, means that folks can stay in the race long past their expiration dates. In a race between Trump and someone else, the mogul probably can't reach 50 percent, but in a crowded field he's the standout, which is great for him, great for ratings. For the rest of us? Maybe not so much.