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The GOP debate: How did CNN's Jake Tapper do?

Moderator Jake Tapper during the early Republican presidential

Moderator Jake Tapper during the early Republican presidential debate at the Reagan Library in Simi Valley, Calif., on Wednesday, Sept. 16, 2015. Credit: TNS / Robert Gauthier

But enough about Donald Trump: How did CNN debate moderator Jake Tapper do Wednesday night during the GOP debate in what could turn out to be the most viewed night in the network's history? [Update: The debate was seen by 23 million viewers, and indeed CNN's most viewed program ever]. 

Sitting up there in the crepuscular gloom with a largely silent Dana Bash off to one side, and a little less silent radio talk show host Hugh Hewitt off to another, Tapper was often heard, seldom seen.

His voice -- less weighted with that anchorly authority, more with the slightly higher pitch of a physics professor explaining the Casimir effect to a freshman class -- pierced the gloom with questions now and then.

Most of them, if memory serves, were either to or about Donald Trump.

Tapper had a difficult, next to impossible job last night, and not just moderating a tennis match that had 11 people hitting volleys at each other at the same time. His network has found enormous -- some critics would say unseemly -- success with Trump, covering him obsessively, and harvesting ratings gains in the process.

Tapper's boss, Jeff Zucker, knows of the Trump allure better than anyone, putting "The Apprentice" on Thursdays a decade ago when he was NBC chief, and dumping out of sitcoms for the first time in human memory. Trump owes Zucker, as much as anyone else, credit for his vast success right now. Zucker is just getting his payback.

So how did Tapper moderate these competing interests that were zooming in on him from onscreen and off? With considerable success, I'd say. But with some caveats.

The debate at first threatened to get away from him, and perhaps he had almost himself to blame. He had told Jimmy Kimmel during a recent interview that he wanted to "pit" the candidates against one another. Reap what you sow...

Here was the early pattern: a question would be asked, an answer tendered, and then someone would jump in. Tapper gamely tried to rein the interloper in, and then another candidate would start to respond.

Tapper then began a game of whack-a-mole, and the moles were winning.

But CNN and Tapper had a strategy that was mostly all-Trump, but not entirely Trump.

How much Trump? According to Fox News, which kept count, 73 questions were asked last night, and 32 of those had Trump's name embedded in some way.

The strategy was straightforward enough. If someone's name was uttered during a response, however loosely, then Tapper would throw it over to the maligned.

"...I heard your name in vain," I believe he said at one point, then allowing the aggrieved to respond.

Tapper stood down often, which was probably the right way to stand. He didn't challenge the veracity or context of answers, which his former colleague Candy Crowley had done during the 2012 presidential debate between President Obama and Mitt Romney (she challenged Romney about some answer, and later had to retract her own correction, if memory serves).

Challenging answers, however warranted, would have turned the debate into a debate between the moderator and the candidates. Not only would that have been unworkable, but unwatchable.

Tapper had no Megyn Kelly moment -- no sharp rebuke of someone for some outrageous statement. But that worked to his advantage, too. The cameras steadily remained on the candidates -- not the moderator, as they should've been.

Was Tapper fair? Yes.

Did Tapper keep this impossible tennis match moving along briskly, even with balls flying all over the place? Yup, that too.

Did the moderator -- who by the way once wrote an unauthorized biography of Jesse "The Body" Ventura and therefore knows a thing or two about world championship wrestling -- have a good night?

I'd say: Undoubtedly.

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