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Since Donald Trump still almost certainly won’t be the Republicans’ presidential nominee this year, my reactions to the first GOP presidential debates need to deal with the 16 other candidates, too. But since Trump is still The Story of Campaign 2016 so far, I need to start off by correcting a mistake in yesterday’s post on his performance. I was slightly inaccurate in my description of his response in the front-runners’ debate to Fox News’ Megyn Kelly’s charge that he’s often insulted women.

Then I’ll segue into an examination of how well or poorly she and her colleagues organized and conducted the session – because the press’ performance clearly will have powerful effects on the presidential race itself.

I wrote yesterday that, rather than trashing Kelly personally, Trump should have focused on framing her question as typifying the superficial “gotcha” mentality that’s dominated mainstream journalism for so long and thus helped degrade American politics. (And of course, Trump should have made this observation “in sorrow, not in anger.”)

But Trump actually did try to Go Serious. As the transcript shows, after his Rosie O’Donnell crack, he insisted that “I don’t frankly have time for total political correctness. And to be honest with you, this country doesn’t have time either. This country is in big trouble. We don’t win anymore. We lose to China. We lose to Mexico both in trade and at the border. We lose to everybody.” The trouble is, immediately afterwards, and especially the following day, he was back in Tabloid Land.

Nonetheless, overall, Kelly and her Fox colleagues did a pretty good – and “fair and balanced” – job at the front-runners event. The initial questions for all the candidates zeroed in on conspicuous weak spots in their records – from neurosurgeon Ben Carson’s unfamiliarity with foreign policy, to former Florida Governor Jeb Bush’s dynasty and “W” problems, to New Jersey’s economic woes under Governor Chris Christie, to Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker’s extreme pro-life abortion stance, to former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee’s challenge in broadening his appeal beyond Christian conservative ranks.

My main criticism on this score is that the subjects of these questions were somewhat too conspicuous. That is, each candidate had obviously heard all of them before, and had had plenty of time to rehearse answers. Moreover, some really obvious follow-ups were neglected throughout the debate. For example, why didn’t any of the panelists point out to Bush that the impressive numbers racked up by his state’s economy during his tenure stemmed largely from a housing bubble that burst disastrously just as he was leaving office?

In addition, Fox’s Chris Wallace once again demonstrated how pitifully little political reporters know about business and finance. As Wallace saw it, a handful of bankruptcies declared by Trump’s businesses over the last 25 years cast doubt on the candidate’s qualifications “to run the nation’s business.” Wallace obviously doesn’t know that failure is such a common aspect of doing business that, as one analyst has noted (and in connection with this Wallace question) it’s “a background term to every contract.  It’s an embedded option.  Lenders price for it.”

Perhaps more important, Wallace is obviously clueless about the essential role bankruptcy plays in producing success. A good businessman or woman uses it the way any intelligent person uses the mistakes that all of us make – as a learning opportunity. Indeed, the most celebrated part of U.S. economy (rightly or wrongly), Silicon Valley, has begun to celebrate failure as an essential ingredient of eventual success.

Finally, I was troubled by the Fox journalists’ decision to pose this viewer question: “I want to know if any of them have received a word from God on what they should do and take care of first.”

I know that subjects like this are of intense interest to many Republican voters in particulara. But you don’t have to oppose injecting religion into political and public policy matters to recognize that this query was bound to unleash a torrent of the most vapid homilies imaginable, notably Florida Senator Marco Rubio’s declaration that “I believe God has blessed our country. This country has been extraordinarily blessed. And we have honored that blessing. And that’s why God has continued to bless us” and Ohio Governor John Kasich’s “I do believe in miracles.”

The only saving grace (no pun intended!) in this segment of the debate was Walker’s statement that “I know that God doesn’t call me to do a specific thing, God hasn’t given me a list, a Ten Commandments, if you will, of things to act on the first day. What God calls us to do is follow his will.”

Here’s hoping that the rest of the 2016 field shows similar restraint in declaring themselves or their agenda or their party to be the Almighty’s anointed messengers – with all the ugly insinuations about their opponents that logically follow, whether they’re intended or not.

Next on RealityChek: a discussion of those Republican candidates not named Donald Trump, including the participants in the undercard.

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