Before the third in an 11-game series of Republican primary debates descended into open mutiny on Wednesday night, each of the candidates to become president of the United States was asked to pretend they were in a job interview and name their biggest weakness.
Some refused to play along, ignoring the question entirely, but two gave answers that revealed a disgust for a gladiatorial format which went far beyond the subsequent squabbling over whether the ringmasters were too brutal.
“After the last debate, I was told I don’t smile enough,” said a weary-looking Carly Fiorina , before flashing her best fake grin at the camera and trying to steer the conversation towards the state of the US economy.
Jeb Bush, in perhaps his most honest assessment yet of what has gone wrong with his disastrous run for the White House , said: “I am impatient and this is not an endeavour that rewards that.”
Wednesday’s debate in the shadow of the Rocky Mountains may mark the end of the former Florida governor’s chances of becoming the party’s nominee next year. Without any memorable zingers to counteract his plummeting poll numbers, the exclamation point in his campaign logo – Jeb! – is rapidly becoming a question mark.
Fiorina, however, had been credited with becoming one of the few contenders in the 2016 “Hunger Games” to make the game-show approach work in her favour. In August, a standout performance in the junior or “undercard” debate on the first evening of competition saw her graduate to the big stage. She briefly reached third place in national opinion polls.
But on Wednesday, the more than usually combative exchanges rewarded two new showbiz stars: Florida senator Marco Rubio and his more conservative rival from Texas, Ted Cruz. Both remained calm but assertive while the television lights heated up.
Rubio has quietly mastered the technique of turning awkward questions into opportunities to deliver carefully polished vignettes about his upbringing. His verbal sparring with Bush proved just as one-sided as the former governor’s earlier trouncing by Donald Trump.
Cruz may now replace Trump as the darling of the right, after his performance as chief critic of CNBC’s lines of questioning .
Attacking the “mainstream media” for bias is a familiar trope of conservatives under pressure and many Democrats believe the more outlandish fiscal proposals of some candidates were long overdue more exacting scrutiny from debate moderators.
Cruz’s angry response, though, succeeded in uniting the contestants against their tormentors and blunted hopes of revealing much about their economic platforms.
A process that was intended to winnow out the unusually crowded Republican field before primary voting begins in February looks likely to keep pundits guessing to the last: chewing up and spitting out new winners and losers almost every time they take to the stage.
Even the biggest beneficiaries of the show appear to be growing tired of it. Trump revealed that he and Ben Carson – another adherent of the Zen school of question-avoidance – had strong-armed television producers into reducing the length of each episode to two hours.
“Nobody wants to watch three and a half or three hours,” said the veteran of TV’s The Apprentice .
“I renegotiated it to two hours, so we can get the hell out of here,” he added, to cheers from the audience.
After the debate, reports said Carson and Trump might even refuse to compete in the next Republican National Committee-run debate, instead choosing their own format and broadcasting network.
On Wednesday, reduced time for questions seemed to leave less time for answers, with moderators hustling each contender to keep their response as brief as possible. Soundbites became soundnibbles.
Televised debates have long been a vital part of the US presidential process. Their fans see them as ways of testing the ability of candidates to think on their feet and under pressure – skills that are needed in the Oval Office.
Yet, traditionally, the primary debates have been only one component in the selection process, ranking alongside policy speeches, campaign stops, fundraising and the so-called “invisible” battle to secure endorsements from other political leaders.
But the record number of candidates for the Republican nomination in 2016 and a lack of clear standout winners in any of these other areas has arguably elevated the debates to centre stage.
Whether they like it or not, the contenders in this hyper-reality TV show may be trapped on screen until well into next season.