Republican presidential candidate, Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, right, speaks as Republican presidential candidate, businessman Donald Trump reacts during a Republican presidential primary debate at The University of Houston, Thursday, Feb. 25, 2016, in Houston. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)
Media critic

It was around 10:37 p.m. that Thursday’s GOP debate, broadcast on CNN and Telemundo from Houston, Texas, took leave of its hinges. The three central candidates in the Republican presidential race — Sen. Ted Cruz, Sen. Marco Rubio and Donald Trump — just wouldn’t shut up. All at the same time, that is: Trump told Cruz, “I know politicians better than you do,” to which Cruz responded, “I believe you know politicians better than I do because for 40 years you’ve been funding liberal Democratic politicians,” to which Trump said, “I funded you,” to which Rubio said, “He never funded me” to which the entire trio continued bickering about who’s a “basket case” and who should “calm down.”

As the candidates sniped at each other, moderator Wolf Blitzer struggled to reassert his control over the proceedings. He tried to plow ahead with his plan to ask a question about the Islamic State, yet the candidates continued bickering. Not a loudmouth himself, Blitzer said, “I want to move on, these are the rules. We’re moving on….I want to talk about ISIS right now.” (For the full transcript of the dysfunction, see the bottom of this post).

Not despite of such difficulties but because of them, Blitzer presided over the quintessence of a cable-news presidential debate — a contentious and sometimes rude verbal spat with three main candidates, just like those panel discussions that the networks are always staging. On Friday, CNN will play back the main combative moments in a loop, with hours and hours of analysis about whether Trump benefited from sustaining attacks from both Rubio and Cruz, or whether his credibility will wither on account of the disputes over the release of his tax returns, healthcare and other issues. It’ll all be worthless.

Thursday night’s tilt wasn’t the precise affair that Blitzer pulled off last year in Las Vegas with a larger Republican field. No wonder, either: The race was a bit more relaxed back then, weeks before the Iowa caucuses. These days it’s a scratch-and-claw fest. Accordingly, the top three on Thursday night cared far less about the rules “all of you have agreed to” — Blitzer’s refrain — than scoring yet another zinger at the buzzer. Blitzer was as disciplined as ever; the candidates weren’t.

CNN does well in these moments. Its camera angles are excellent, its questions well vetted, its production values solid. Yet this is the fourth of six CNN primary debates — a count that doesn’t mention a number of town-hall events — and its approach is starting to feel a bit stale. Just like a person, a network has a personality and a set of tendencies that start to seem familiar. Blitzer’s questions, for instance, covered the same-old, same-old, giving the candidates more chances to recite their same-old, same-old answers. Conservative radio commentator Hugh Hewitt, too, brought the same approach as we’ve seen in two previous CNN GOP debates.

And that tees up the evening’s bright spot, which was María Celeste Arrarás, the Telemundo anchor who pursued fresh and detailed lines of inquiry regarding immigration, Canada and Puerto Rico. She smacked down Trump on one of his favorite topics — polling! — and pushed both Rubio and Cruz on key points. Her night included this exchange with Trump:

ARRARAS: And, yes, you won the Hispanic vote in Nevada.

TRUMP: True.

ARRARAS: But a brand new Telemundo poll says that three out of four Hispanics that vote nationwide have a negative opinion of you. They don’t like you. Wouldn’t that make you an unelectable…


ARRARAS: … candidate in a general election?

TRUMP: First of all, I don’t believe anything Telemundo says.

Remember: Telemundo was originally supposed to partner with NBC News for this event. But in light of CNBC’s poor performance in a late October debate, the Republican National Committee (RNC) yanked the all-areas pass of NBC News, its corporate sibling. CNN sneaked in and grabbed another fail-safe ratings bonanza event, to the detriment of diversity in debate hosting. An exclusive Telemundo GOP debate — now there’s a popcorn-worthy affair.


TRUMP: I watched what this man [Cruz] did to Dr. Ben Carson, who I respect, in Iowa, where he said that Ben Carson is out of the race — he has left Iowa and he’s out of the race. And I thought it was disgraceful.

And got a lot of votes because of that — a lot of votes. Took them away from Ben Carson. I watched that. Probably took them away from me, too. But I watched it.

I also watched where he did a forum that looked like it came right out of a government agency, and it said on top, “Voter Violation,” and then it graded you…


… and it scared the hell out of people, and it said the only way you clear up the violation, essentially, is to go and vote for Ted Cruz. I watched that fraudulent document, and I said it’s the worst thing I’ve ever seen in politics.


To me, that was even worse than what he did to Ben.

BLITZER: Senator Cruz…


TRUMP: I know politicians — I know politicians, believe it or not, better than you do. And it’s not good.

CRUZ: I believe it. No, no. I believe you know politicians much better than I do, because for 40 years, you’ve been funding liberal Democratic politicians. And by the way…

TRUMP: I funded you. I funded him. Can you believe it?


CRUZ: … the reason is — you’re welcome to have the check back.

TRUMP: I funded this guy. I gave him a check.

CRUZ: Yeah, you gave me $5,000.

TRUMP: I gave him a check. He never funded me.

CRUZ: And — and by the way, let’s be clear.


Donald claims — Donald claims to care about…

TRUMP: You know why? I didn’t want to, but he sent me his book with his autograph…


CRUZ: Donald. Donald. Donald. I understand rules are very hard for you. They’re very confusing.

TRUMP: Mr. Trump, you’re doing a great job. I have his book.


TRUMP: Thank you — thank you for the book. Go ahead.

CRUZ: Donald, you can get back on your meds now.

TRUMP: This is a lot of fun up here tonight, I have to tell you.


Thank — thank you for the book. I really appreciate (ph).

CRUZ: Donald — Donald, relax.

TRUMP: Go ahead. I’m relaxed. You’re the basket case.


Go ahead.

CRUZ: Donald…

TRUMP: Go ahead. Don’t get nervous.

CRUZ: (inaudible)…

TRUMP: Go ahead.


CRUZ: I promise you, Donald, there’s nothing about you…

TRUMP: I’ve seen you.

CRUZ: … that makes anyone nervous.

TRUMP: You’re losing so badly you — I want to…

CRUZ: You know, people are actually watching this at home.

TRUMP: … I — you don’t know what’s happening.


BLITZER: Gentlemen, gentlemen.

CRUZ: Wolf, I’m going to ask my time not be deducted when he’s yelling at me.

BLITZER: You’ve gotta stop this.


BLITZER: The latest debate — gentlemen, please.

CRUZ: Hold on, I’m going to get my answer. He doesn’t get to yell the whole time. BLITZER: I want to move — I want to move on. These are the rules.


CRUZ: Excuse me, he called me a liar, then interrupted the whole time. Am I allowed to…



CRUZ: Wolf, do I not get a response? Do I not get a response without being interrupted?

BLITZER: You’ll get — you’ll get plenty of response, so stand by.

CARSON: My name was mentioned.

BLITZER: I want to talk — I want to talk about ISIS right now, and the federal government — how much best to keep Americans safe from ISIS.