Following the nationally televised debate among Republican presidential hopefuls at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in California Wednesday evening, the prevailing wisdom among television’s talking heads was the same as it had been before the debate: There may be eight candidates in the primary scrum to pick a 2012 challenger to President Barack Obama, but realistically the deal continues to be a two-man race between Texas Gov. Rick Perry and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney.

The conservative Perry, who leads in the polls, and Romney, a moderate who trails not far behind, stood an arm’s length from one another and traded barbs over job creation and Social Security reform. After watching the two-hour show moderated by NBC anchor Brian Williams and Politico editor-in-chief John Harris, I figured each candidate got from the other as good as he gave.

The other six candidates were aggressive and lively, as well, without being overly cantankerous. Unless you count Newt Gingrich, ever the smartest kid in the class, who can be counted on to zing the news media at these exhibitions for asking what he considers unworthy questions.

His admonishment of the moderators for allegedly trying to goad the candidates into turning on one another drew nearly as much applause as when Williams — questioning Perry about the Texas justice system — cited the high number of prison inmates who have been put to death in the state. A tough crowd it is that cheers the mention of capital punishment, Williams implied as he continued his question.

“Far more than in earlier GOP debates this summer, the candidates mixed it up in their first face-off since Perry entered the race and almost instantly overtook Romney as the front-runner in opinion polls,” The Associated Press reported. “Those two — and other contenders — sniped at one another, contradicted allegations and interrupted media questioners to demand opportunities to take each other on.”

As I watched the program, it occurred to me that success of made-for-television multicandidate political debates depends in large part upon the skill of the moderator in handling a bunch of able people with healthy egos demanding equal attention. Ever mindful of the power of the remote control in the hands of an electorate with an attention span shorter than that of the average love-struck teenager, moderators must keep the show moving along.

One proven way to enliven proceedings is to ask a question straight out of left field — a curve-ball query that candidates have not anticipated, forcing them to think on their feet and giving voters more insight into the respondent’s character and ability than a year’s worth of fancy position papers and canned stump speeches could ever provide.

For example, a great off-the-wall question during a candidate forum in the latter days of Bill Clinton’s presidency might have been one asking a respondent to define the word “is” — a word with which Clinton struggled in testimony at the height of the sex scandal that rocked his administration. “It depends upon what the meaning of ‘is’ is,” he famously replied in answering a prosecutor’s question.

I am prompted to suggest the off-beat question gambit upon discovering in my file of presidential debate stuff a golden oldie newspaper clipping — a letter to the editor of the Wall Street Journal at the time from one Michael W. Reece of Brookside, N.J. who attempted to resolve the president’s definition problem. To wit:

“Regarding Bill Clinton’s difficulties with the word ‘is’ during his taped grand jury testimony: Well, is ‘is,’ or isn’t it? I mean, if not, then what is ‘is’? If ‘is’ was ‘was,’ which it isn’t, then that would also mean ‘was’ was ‘is.’ But it isn’t that, either. So just what is ‘is’?

“Maybe it’s easier to decide what ‘is’ isn’t,” the letter continued. “Well, ‘is’ isn’t ‘were,’ because if ‘is’ were ‘were’ then ‘was’ would be ‘is.’ But we already know that it isn’t. ‘Is’ could be ‘are,’ but if
‘is’ is ‘are’ . . . no, let’s not go there, because ‘are’ implies plural, and surely he didn’t mean ‘is’ was ‘are.’ So if ‘is’ wasn’t ‘were’ and ‘is’ isn’t ‘was’ and ‘is’ is not ‘are,’ just what is ‘is’?

“I think ‘is’ IS ‘is.’ Isn’t it?’’

Although such a question might not sit well with Gingrich and other media monitors, a candidate who could respond in a similar manner, spur-of-the-moment and under pressure, would figure to win most any debate, I should think.

BDN columnist Kent Ward lives in Limestone. His e-mail address is