Trump, Romney, Huckabee Absent: Fox News' 2012 GOP Debate Debacle

With Mitt Romney, Donald Trump, Mike Huckabee, and other heavyweights absent, the news channel's first 2012 Republican debate was a disastrous clash among also-rans—and Tim Pawlenty, who looked the worse for showing up, writes Matt Latimer.

GOP candidates from tonight's debate in South Carolina. Credit: AP Photo

The main problem with last night’s GOP debate is that most of the diehard political junkies in Washington—yours truly among them—had to be reminded that it was even taking place. The many, many voters who missed this clash of “ Governor Tim Pawlenty and the also-rans” can continue their lives without a care.

The real loser of tonight’s South Carolina encounter is Fox News Channel. What on earth possessed the network to host this asterisk-in-the making? Fox wasted airfare, production costs, and the time of some of their marquee names—Chris Wallace, Juan Williams, and Bret Baier—who asked questions of a bunch of also-rans without even pretending to listen to their answers. The first clue this debate was a disaster was when the moderators began to ask the placeholders on stage about candidates who weren’t even there: Mitt Rom-bot, Trump, Daniels, Huckabee, Bachmann, Gingrich, and Trump, again.

Ironically for a network accused of right-wing bias, Fox may have done the Republican Party a monumental disservice. In the midst of one of the Obama administration’s greatest achievements—the killing of Osama bin Laden—the network made the Republican presidential primary look like a low-budget Star Trek convention, where only the guy who played Dr. McCoy and a bunch of extras bothered to show up. And the network’s overuse of a loud, annoying Price Is Right bell to cut candidates off in mid-sentence only added to the aura that this affair was a tawdry game show waiting for someone to mercifully hit a gong.

Since I had to watch this whatever-the-opposite-of-thriller-is, I might as well offer a note or two on each of the candidates who did show up. Soak it up, gentlemen: This is the most attention you will get all year.

Congressman Ron Paul was his usual self, lapping up applause and laughter from his uncontrollable contingent in the audience, while angrily railing against waterboarding, the U.S. involvement in Afghanistan and Iraq, the federal debt, “our militarism,” something about heroin, and monsters under the bed. If you actually listen to him, the congressman does say some sensible things. But somehow he gives off a sense that his true calling is to work in a local library, where he can chastise patrons who go a few minutes over their allotted time on the Internet. Does this man ever smile? Tell a joke? Take a breath? And why am I wasting so many lines on him?

The overuse of a loud Price Is Right bell to cut candidates off in mid-sentence added to the aura that this affair was a tawdry game show.

Since it doesn’t really matter, let’s move, randomly to…oh, Herman Cain, the pizza guy, who despite his national anonymity remains a darling of conservatives. Unfortunately, Mr. Cain did not take advantage of this rare—and likely sole—opportunity in the spotlight to explain why anyone might consider him presidential. I knew little about him when the debate began, and I know even less about him now. Even Chris Wallace finally felt the need to ask him the “who do you think you are kidding?” question. (I didn’t understand his answer.)

Narrowly losing to Fox News for worst idea of the night was the attendance of actual legitimate contender—until tonight, at least— Tim Pawlenty. If I’d been there to watch the governor walk onto the stage, I would have screamed at him, Admiral Ackbar-style: “It’s a trap!” Undoubtedly his advisers thought the Minnesota governor would look like a president standing next to all these . . . I’m running out of synonyms for also-rans. He didn’t. His advisers also must have told Pawlenty to move his hands frequently, as if to give off a sense that he is actually animated. What does it say about our would-be presidential nominee when he couldn’t really outshine Gary Johnson (Who?)?

Former senator Rick Santorum actually offered the best impersonation of a legitimate presidential candidate. The youthful-looking and confident Santorum boasted about all the incumbents he defeated in various elections in Pennsylvania—sort of skipping over that one time when he didn’t. It happened to be his last election, when he was decisively thrown out of office by the majority of voters in his home state. Not exactly a recipe for defeating the Obama war machine.

As for the man on stage identified as “Gary Johnson”: I fear I’ve already said too much. All I remember is that Bret Baier found him so inconsequential that he started to make fun of him.

I’m loath to acknowledge this, but by far the shrewdest candidate of the evening was Mitt Romney, for whatever excuse he had for ducking this mess (perhaps because he couldn’t reschedule his annual tune-up.) For the first time in four years, I actually missed him, his metallic hair, and his traveling Power Point caravan.

The most notable fact of the whole encounter, however, is this: Donald Trump would have outshone any of them without even trying. I’m not sure what that says about the status of the GOP race in 2012, but it definitely isn’t good.

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Matt Latimer is the author of the New York Times bestseller, SPEECH-LESS: Tales of a White House Survivor. He was deputy director of speechwriting for George W. Bush and chief speechwriter for Donald Rumsfeld.