Republican presidential candidates Donald Trump (L) and Jeb Bush take part in the presidential debates at the Reagan Library in Simi Valley, Calif., on Sept. 16, 2015.
Justin Sullivan—Getty Images
By Michael Scherer
September 17, 2015

-1 minutes. Ball is in your court CNN. Show us what you got. Fox News won 24 million viewers in the first GOP debate. They went two hours in the main event. Grilled 10 people. It was yoooge. Can CNN boss Jeff Zucker top Fox News boss Roger Ailes? Can Jake Tapper match Megyn Kelly? In cable news there can be only one top dog.

0 minutes. The camera swings wide to show a giant blue and white phallus. It’s Reagan’s Air Force One arrayed behind 11 candidates on stage. CNN means business. Host Tapper says, “Anything can happen over the next few hours.” By “few” he means three. Is Zucker mad? Aren’t there union work rules? Don’t these candidates get to pee? Tapper says he wants “a true debate with candidates addressing each other.” This is Thunderdome. Zucker is showing America a real boss. To top it off, it’s hot in there. Look at Florida Sen. Marco Rubio. He is already wiping sweat from his brow.

1 minute. Tapper asks for introductions. You’ve heard this all before, campaign slogans mixed with praise for their family. Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee tries to mix it up by praising the others trapped with him on the CNN stage. “We are in fact the A-Team,” he says. “We even have our own Mr. T.” He means Donald Trump. For all you millennials, A-Team is a reference to a television show from the 1980s. Kind of like Harry Potter, except with no wizardry stuff, more mohawks and car chases. Also a guy named “Face.” Huckabee doesn’t say who is playing Face in his metaphor. This is a good call.

3 minutes. Florida Sen. Marco Rubio makes a joke about bringing his water bottle, because he once got dry mouth. No one laughs. Celebrity real estate developer Trump says “braggadocious,” which would be the end of the night if this were Scrabble. Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush says “I am ready to lead,” as if saying it will make it so. Former Hewlett Packard CEO Carly Fiorina stares at the camera for an odd second before she tells her story, which includes a line from Bush. “I am prepared to lead.” Does this work? You say it and the voters decide it is true. It probably does, like a charm.

9 minutes. The first question from Tapper is basically all provocation, like putting two bulldogs in a cage with a single steak. Does Fiorina think Trump can be trusted with a nuclear trigger? She calls him a “wonderful entertainer” and dodges. Then Trump gets to speak. For no reason, he starts picking on someone else. “Rand Paul shouldn’t even be on this stage. He’s number 11. He’s got 1%.” Because Paul’s name has been mentioned, he is added to the cage. Those are the rules.

11 minutes. Paul bites at Trump. “His visceral response is to attack people on their appearance — short, tall, fat, ugly — my goodness, that happened in junior high,” he says. “Are we not way above that?” Thanks for asking, Rand. The answer is, no. “I never attacked him on his looks,” Trump responds. “And believe me, there’s plenty of subject matter right there.” Wedgie time!

14 minutes. Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker wants into the cage. “Jake, Jake, Jake, Jake,” he says. But Tapper decides to add Bush to the cage instead, and Bush bites, gingerly. “You can’t just, you know, talk about this stuff and insult leaders around the world and expect a good result,” he says of Trump.

15 minutes. Walker is yapping again. “Jake, this is — this is — this is,” he says. Tapper relents and lets him speak. Walker says they should talk about real issues, and not insult each other. Then he immediately insults Trump. “We don’t need an apprentice in the White House,” he says. “We have one right now.” This reflects a poor understanding of Trump’s role on The Apprentice, the hit show Trump hosted on NBC, which was also produced by Zucker. According to debate rules, it is now time for Trump to insult Walker. “When the folks of Iowa found out the true facts of the job that you’ve done in Wisconsin, all of a sudden you tubed,” Trump says. Dear millennials, he does not mean Walker posted a video online. He means he flushed down the toilet.

17 minutes. Zucker’s plan is working out brilliantly. It decends into a free for all. Ohio Gov. John Kasich tries to get in on the action, so he can play the adult that Walker pretended he wanted to play.

18 minutes. Tapper won’t allow this. He cuts Kasich off and asks retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson to attack New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie. Carson kind of dodges. So does Christie.

19 minutes. In a huge relief for CNN, Fiorina jumps in to say all the politicians on the stage are rotten. “A fish swims in water, it doesn’t know it’s water,” she says. “It’s not that politicians are bad people, it’s that they’ve been in that system forever.”

21 minutes. Remember this thing is scheduled to go 180 minutes. The fish are already gasping for air. Tapper goads Bush and Trump to start tearing each other apart. Bush denies that he is a puppet to his donors. “Absolutely not,” says Bush. “People are supporting me because I have a proven record of conservative leadership.” That may not be a lie, but it sure sounds like one. Trump pounces. Then Bush interrupts. Trump looks at Bush, like a bully looking at his latest prey. “Okay, more energy tonight. I like that,” Trump says. Then he stomps all over Jeb.

24 minutes. Someone is whispering on the stage. It is Carson. “Jake, can I say something about that?” asks Carson, politely. “I in no way am willing to get in the bed with special interest group or lick the boots of billionaires.” Whoa now, Dr. Carson. Kids might be watching.

25 minutes. On to foreign policy. Huckabee, Rubio and Texas Sen. Ted Cruz have still not had a chance to speak. Lots of talk about what to do with Russian President Putin and Iran. It starts to get kind of policy focused.

29 minutes. This cannot be allowed. Tapper steps in to start them fighting again. He mentions that Kasich called a bunch of the other candidates on stage “inexperienced” and “playing to the crowd.” They all squabble over the speed and fury they would employ to rip up President Obama’s Iran nuclear deal and cancel dinners with China. Cruz wins by saying he would rip it “to shreds.”

37 minutes. Trump compares Obama to the cowardly lion from The Wizard of Oz. “Somehow, he just doesn’t have courage,” he says.

43 minutes. Huckabee sings the praises of the Kentucky clerk who refuses to marry gay couples because of her religion. “We made accommodation to the Fort Hood shooter to let him grow a beard,” Huckabee says. “You’re telling me that you cannot make an accommodation for an elected Democrat county clerk from Rowan County, Kentucky?”

45 minutes. Now they find new ways to compete, like over who is more outraged about the undercover Planned Parenthood videos. Fiorina wins with this sentence: “Watch a fully formed fetus on the table, its heart beating, its legs kicking while someone says we have to keep it alive to harvest its brain.” Remember, kids might be watching.

52 minutes. Not wanting to lose the narrative thread, Tapper pairs Bush and Trump again, asking them to fight over how badly Bush blew it when he misspoke about women’s health issues. “I respect women,” says Trump, which is the most remarkable quote of the exchange. This is, after all, a guy who once told the New Yorker that his ideal company was, “A total piece of ass.”

57 minutes. Tapper gets bored. So he asks Fiorina to attack Trump for saying of her, “Look at that face. Would anyone vote for that?” She has a brutal zinger ready. “I think women all over this country heard very clearly what Mr. Trump said,” she says. Trump knows she got him good. His only response it to remake his initial mistake, by commenting on Fiorina’s looks. “I think she’s got a beautiful face, and I think she’s a beautiful woman,” he says. If Trump played basketball, he would only have one move.

59 minutes. First break comes and goes in a blur of Hollywood movie ads. CNN is raking in the dough. Zucker sticks another pin in his Ailes voodoo doll.

63 minutes. We return for more bloodshed, because the ratings demand it. Tapper doesn’t just ask Trump about his plan to forcibly deport 11 million people. He says “Tell Governor Christie how much your plan would cost.” Why ask a question about policy when you can hand out knives?

67 minutes. The candidates don’t know what to do with the weapons. So Tapper moves on. He tells Bush that Trump insulted his wife. That should do the trick. Bush is outraged, in the way an aristocrat gets outraged. He gently removes a white glove: “To subject my wife into the middle of a raucous political conversation was completely inappropriate, and I hope you apologize for that, Donald.” No way Trump is going to apologize. He’s from Queens, yo. “I do hear she’s a lovely woman,” Trump says. Oh, snap!

70 minutes. More blood. More gore. CNN host Dana Bash steps in. She asks Trump to attack Bush for speaking Spanish. “This is a country where we speak English,” Trump obliges. “Well, I’ve been speaking English here tonight,” says Bush. Rubio adds that he speaks Spanish to spread the conservative message to Spanish speakers. “If they get their news in Spanish, I want them to hear that directly from me. Not from a translator at Univision,” he says.

71 minutes. The format is getting old. Each question is asked not as a question, but as an invitation for two candidates to rip each other apart. Cruz and Carson are paired on “amnesty.” Then Rubio and Carson. Then Trump and Fiorina are pitted against each other over “birthright citizenship.” Then Trump and Fiorina are asked to tussel over whether she “ran HP into the ground.” And they do. It’s exhausting.

85 minutes. Because Trump mentions Atlantic City, he mentions Christie, who then gets to join the fun, because those are the rules. Christie says they should start talking about issues and “stop playing the games.” But that would go against the CNN master plan. So the games continue. Tapper asks Kasich to fight with Bush over taxing hedge fund managers.

89 minutes. Carson is asked about his tax plan. Just kidding. Carson is asked to attack Donald Trump. “Tell Donald Trump why his ideas on taxes are wrong,” says Tapper. Carson says he supports a flat 10% tax for everyone, because progressive taxation is “called socialism.” That’s not true, of course. But no one dwells on it.

97 minutes. It must be really hot on stage. Even with the makeup, there are lots of glistening foreheads. Did Zucker crank the heat? Don’t bet against it. He has basically produced a presidential debate like Running Man, the Arnold Schwarzenegger movie about the convicts who get killed one by one as the crowd cheers. By the way, Schwarzenegger, the former Governor of California and the next host of Donald Trump’s Celebrity Apprentice, is sitting in the audience. These are strange times. Strange, strange times.

102 minutes. After a second break, Tapper puts gladiator Trump in the arena with gladiator Rubio. Rubio basically called Trump dumb for not knowing the names of some Arab leaders. “Please respond,” says Tapper. Trump says he is really smart and will learn quick, and besides no one should be expected to know “name after name, Arab name, Arab name.” Gladiator Trump, in other words, hits himself in the face.

107 minutes. Rand tries to interrupt to attack Trump, who talks over him. “If you don’t mind, Rand—you know, you are on last—you do have your 1 percent,” he says. Then Bush attacks Trump. Then Rand says Bush was wrong about something. It’s true that you get desensitized to violence over time. This is more like a three-way ping pong match. Walker joins in at some point too. Also Rubio.

115 minutes. Carson says he sort of agrees with Trump about George W. Bush messing up in Iraq. Trump tries to give Carson a high five, which turns into a handshake. More awkward than bro.

123 minutes. More talking. More Thunderdome ping pong.

138 minutes. We’re back from another commercial break to talk about marijuana, a drug that, even if generously consumed by audience and candidates, would not make these proceedings more pleasurable. Everyone is supposed to attack each other, of course. Rand and Christie do. Then Bush says, “40 years ago, I smoked marijuana, and I admit it.” This is refreshing, as it does not sound anything like, “People are supporting me because I have a proven record of conservative leadership.”

146 minutes. Discussion of guns. Entitlements. Climate change. Vaccines. As much as possible, the candidates are asked to phrase their answers in the form of a stabbing motion at the jugular of their fellow candidate.

164 minutes. Fun question: What woman would you put on the $10 bill? A bunch of candidates say Rosa Parks. A bunch of candidates say their wives. Bush says Margaret Thatcher, who led the nation the United States fought a Revolutionary War against. This is weird.

168 minutes. Another fun question. What would your Secret Service nickname be? Christie says Trueheart. Bush says Eveready, and gets a low-five from Trump. Carson says, Onenation, which is not a name. Paul says Justiceneversleeps which is even weirder than Thatcher.

175 minutes. We’re done. Big success for Zucker and the CNN gang. But this is just the beginning. They can do so much more. The next debate should continue in the same vein. Make it 24 hours long. Keep the room temperature at 105 degrees. Hand out prison shanks to the candidates. And waterboard the audience.

Read Next: Read the Full Text of the Second Republican Debate

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