The second shoe dropped Tuesday night when a selection of the leading candidates for the Republican presidential nomination appeared on "The Wolf Blitzer Show," as I think of my favorite reality TV series. For two hours on CNN, "The Republican Debates: America Votes 2008," the sequel to the Democrats on Sunday night, gave us the chance to hear the answer to the question, as framed in CNN's full- page newspaper ads, "Who Do You Trust to Lead?"
What I got out of the debates so far is the Republicans are ahead in candidates who think they are ready for prime time, 10 to 8.
For debate purists, ten candidates might seem a bit too many to explain what they would do if elected to the highest office in the land. But that was nothing compared to a debate on NBC in the 2000 primaries. I still remember Mr. Charisma, Tom Brokaw, handling the 12-man debate at the start of that New Hampshire primary, a line up including both Republican and Democrat candidates on the same stage at the same time. That mob scene will live in the annals of American public discourse.
Once again, Wolf Blitzer took charge of the crowd. Lined up on the stage at St. Anselem College, the GOP hopefuls looked like ten little wooden Indians. At times they seemed to be so timid, watching their words so carefully, they struck me as being incapable of leading a rally at a softball game, no lest leading the nation in a time when the rest of the world is out to scalp us.
Led on by Blitzer, holder of the Bernie Shaw Chair of Mediocre Journalism at CNN, it was a night of mostly wood striking wood, occasionally seeming as if the debate would start a fire, or at least lightning, as in the case of Giuliani speaking out on abortion. Candidates in these debates are allowed to talk out of both sides of their mouth on issues ('Was it a mistake to invade Iraq?") A debate between themselves on immigration would be more interesting.
They know these early primary debates can hurt a candidate. Look what happened to Wesley Clark, the first general to run for president as a Democrat since George B. McClellan challenged Lincoln in 1864, in New Hampshire last time. One day he's Douglas Macarthur returning to save the Democratic Party, the next day a PFC company clerk typing up furlough passes at Fort Totten As soon as they take a strong position on anything on national television, you can hear the sound of a bubble bursting.
Blitzer opened the show as usual, enunciating Wolf's "Rules of Order": one-minute time limits and the need to answer questions. No loud bells and whistles, red lights, yellow lights to control mike time. He said he counted on their honesty. The candidates immediately began not answering questions at great length. Why say in one sentence on TV what you can say in a paragraph? It also was a chance to show, perhaps, how the candidates would be honoring their campaign promises, if elected.
I don't want be too hard on Wolfie. These are hardened politicians who know how to play the facade game. The job of the moderator is to be a traffic cop, to keep them on topic, on time. Nobody wants to interrupt and say something like, "you didn't answer the question." Nobody wants to make them feel uncomfortable by actually requiring they answer the question. My God, it's only the presidency of the U.S. that's at stake. To his credit, Blitzer actually tried that with Romney, who didn't answer a question twice ("If the troop build up doesn't improve the Iraq situation, what then?")
The CNN crowd control police worked out three basic formats for these non-debate debates. The first hour the Gang of Ten stood up in front of their podiums. The second hour they sat down. This gave us an idea who might be better conducting foreign policy standing up at lectern and who is better at denying evolution while sitting down.
The third wrinkle CNN added in the second hour test for the chameleons running for office was facing the people directly. The so-called "town hall" format took the power of interrogation away from Blitzer and his team of two correspondents and turned it over to ordinary people, none of who would be shouting into the mike, "Howard Stern Lives. " The heavily screened average folks looked like they came from the Land of the Living Dead, instead of New Hampshire.
In future debates, we will be seeing who is better running the country wandering around with wireless mikes, and, after that, appearing in shirtsleeves and turtlenecks.
You have to realize none of these formats are ideal as far as political candidates are concerned. Their idea of a good debate is going on the Larry King show and slugging it out one on one for an hour with the Torquemada of the air waves. "Tell me your honest opinion, no holds barred," Larry might ask, "What do you think of my suspenders."
In the one minute I have left, has the CNN mini-series "Who Do You Trust to lead" helped me make up my mind? These quadrennial debate game shows have as much to do with debates as Family Feud had to do Lincoln- Douglas. I'm waiting for the candidates to appear on Letterman and Leno, where they get more time to explain where they really stand, or sit, on the issues.