Critic's Notebook: GOP Debate or Trump-Fiorina Rom-Com?
Watching the second Republican Candidates debate, it was hard to ignore the — pardon the expression — elephant in the room.
Of course, I'm referring to the unmistakable sexual tension between Carly Fiorina and Donald Trump.
Sure, these two outsider candidates have sniped at each other in the past, with Trump infamously insulting Fiorina's looks. But their attacks on each other during the debate felt like the animosity between the lead characters in a Hollywood romantic comedy who eventually realize that they're made for each other. Trump seemed to acknowledge it, declaring about the former Hewlett-Packard CEO, "I think she's got a beautiful face, and she's a beautiful woman." It's time for these two to get a room.
Indeed, much of the evening was a virtual lovefest between the candidates, despite the best efforts of CNN's moderator Jake Tapper, who seemed intent on throwing raw meat into an arena filled with pitbulls. Consistently baiting the candidates by inviting them to respond to disparaging remarks made by their competitors on the trail, he made it seem as if each podium should be equipped with boxing gloves.
Naturally, Trump wasted no time taking the bait, wondering why Rand Paul was on the dais despite his low standing in the polls and then, you guessed it, disparaging his looks.
But with some minor exceptions, there was more friendliness than hostility on display. Chris Christie, responding to an alleged criticism of him by Ben Carson, practically threw air kisses to the former neurologist. The debate had barely begun before Mike Huckabee, in his opening remarks, referred to the Republican field as "The A Team" and Trump as "Mr. T." At one point later, Trump even gave Carson a high-five.
The event — which with its marathon, three-hour plus running time dragged on longer than many award shows — was held in the Reagan Presidential Library, or, in Republican-speak, Mecca. Naturally, the spirit of the Great Communicator was evoked again and again, with practically all of the candidates declaring him a personal inspiration. John Kasich bested them all, however, by pointing to Reagan's Air Force One looming over their heads and casually mentioning that he had ridden on the plane with the Gipper.
Speaking of name-dropping, Fiorina won that contest, mentioning her "good friend" Bibi Netanyahu and countering Trump's criticism of her tenure at HP by revealing that, when she got fired, she got a consolation call from Steve Jobs.
A particular highlight was the heated three-way debate between Rand Paul, Chris Christie and Jeb Bush about the legalization of marijuana. That led to one of the evening's most fun moments, when Bush admitted smoking weed (no, he didn't use that term) forty years ago and then, with a sheepish expression, said "My mom's not happy that I just [said that]." It was somehow touching that he seemed genuinely worried about the repercussions.
Another memorable moment came when Bush insisted that Trump apologize for a remark he made about Bush being more sympathetic to immigrants because his wife is Mexican. In typical fashion, Trump refused, although he did admit, "I hear she's a lovely woman."
But that didn't compare to when the Donald, questioned about women's policy issues, declared, "I will take care of women." Although obviously meant to be reassuring, it instead came off as serial killer-creepy.
There was one historic moment, when one of the candidates actually admitted making a mistake. It was Ted Cruz, referring to his support of John Roberts' nomination to the Supreme Court. But he hedged on it by adding that he really preferred another candidate and only supported Roberts after he was nominated by George W. Bush.
As is becoming usual, Carson provided some of the more surreal moments, such as when he seemed to accuse Trump of being a socialist because of his support for higher taxes on the rich, and again when he said he would be fine allowing undocumented immigrants to stay in the country for a while as long as they were willing to work "agricultural" jobs, presumably picking fruit.
Shortly before the evening's end, the candidates were presented with some whimsical questions, to which they responded in quirky fashion. Asked which woman they would like to see on the $10 bill, they provided such obviously illegal figures as Margaret Thatcher and Mother Teresa, although Rosa Parks emerged as the frontrunner. Huckabee said that it should be his wife, so presumably he'll be getting some post-debate action on the home front.
A query about what Secret Service code name they would pick for themselves produced a series of lame responses, except for Bush, who delivered the best ad lib of the night by answering "Eveready," before turning to Trump and adding, "It's very high-energy, Donald."
If the candidates can come up with more quips as good as this, maybe the GOP should think about actually increasing the number of debates.
This article originally appeared in THR.com.