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Two-thirds of the way through CNN’s sophomoric Wednesday political circus, a strange thing happened.

A substantive debate broke out.

The exchanges moved beyond moderator Jake Tapper’s coat-holding, what-do-you-say-to-him-about-what-he-said-about-you questions and turned to foreign policy.

Donald Trump criticized George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq. Trump was joined by Ben Carson, who said he had urged Bush to take a different course, and Rand Paul, who noted that US interventions in the Middle East had created opportunities for Islamic extremists.

Jeb Bush, who has flubbed this issue before, was left
saying: “As it relates to my brother, there is one thing I know for sure, he kept us safe,” a formulation that, as an all-encompassing rationale, offends critical thinking.

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Bush and Marco Rubio then tried to blame Obama’s post-George W. foreign policy for the chaos in Iraq and Syria, saying that when the United States pulled back, it created a vacuum into which Islamic extremists expanded. John Kasich noted that he would support having US troops join the fight against ISIS as part of a coalition.

Granted, Chris Christie used the question to puff himself up, while Scott Walker recycled his assertion that fighting Wisconsin’s unions had established his foreign policy mettle.

Still, for 10 minutes or so, viewers saw an interesting discussion of foreign policy approaches.

Unfortunately for CNN, instructive moments were the exception, not the rule. Over three hours, little or nothing was asked or said about the candidates’ plans for jobs. Or trade. Or college costs.

By common consensus, Carly Fiorina, consigned to the JV debate last time, made the most of her opportunity on the big stage. One reason: She was the candidate who dealt most effectively with Donald Trump. Her line that women had heard Trump’s demeaning remark about her looks was a succinct stiletto.

What we saw from Trump was egotism as a substitute for ideas. How would he accomplish this or that? Simple: He’s Trump.

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John Kasich, though not a standout, underlined his governing credentials effectively. Fans of Marco Rubio, Chris Christie, and Scott Walker have moments to point to, but Rubio came off as too much of a grim foreign policy ideologue, Christie as both hot and contrived, Walker as lacking heft.

If Fiorina was the clear winner, there was also one debate participant that raised expectations sky-high and then failed to deliver: CNN.


Scot Lehigh can be reached at lehigh@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeScotLehigh.