Around the middle of last year, I was asked to write a magazine piece about the growing number of Republican debates, focused on a central issue: Were all the contests cheapening the process?
This was right after Rick Perry's "oops" moment, when his forgetfulness midway through a debate answer launched 1,000 late night comedy monologues and killed his candidacy before it really started.
Back then, some conservatives worried the debates weren't presidential enough; former Ronald Reagan chief of staff Ken Duberstein complained the debates had become a "reality show" more similar to the film Animal House.
And that was before reality TV star Donald Trump tried to host one.
So it is a little amusing to see some Republicans rally around Newt Gingrich as he complains that requests for the audience to avoid cheering or audibly reacting during Monday's debate here in Tampa (co-sponsored by the Tampa Bay Times, NBC News and the National Journal).
"I wish in retrospect I'd protested when Brian Williams took them out of it because I think it's wrong," Gingrich told the Fox and Friends morning show Tuesday, as quoted by the New York Times. "And I think he took them out of it because the media is terrified that the audience is going to side with the candidates against the media, which is what they've done in every debate."
He got support from an unlikely source: Elisabeth Hasselbeck, the View co-host generally counted on to offer an emotional take on the day's conservative outrage. "Dare we not let anyone applaud for a Republican," she said, voice dripping with sarcasm. "I think the American people should have a right to say or express what they think peacefully."
Of course Gingrich likes the crowd noise, because he is adept at tossing out lines which bring waves of applause, helping him avoid uncomfortable questions from moderators and attacks from rivals (he also loves bashing the media, which may helped him win South Carolina). Monday night, Gingrich seemed off his game without the reactions, forced to watch as Mitt Romney explained to the crowd exactly how he leveraged connections as the former House Speaker into a multi-million dollar consultant career.
The CNN debate from South Carolina was a textbook example of how crowd noise can take control of the debate away from the moderators. As John King faced derision for asking about unflattering statements from Gingrich's ex-wife, the crowd's applause for the candidate's harsh answer essentially shut down discussion of the topic. Control has passed from the moderator to the crowd -- and by extension, the candidate who best controls the crowd, Gingrich.
That's why Jim Lehrer, host of 11 debates and author of a book on moderating them, told me last year that nixing the crowd noise is one of the only changes he'd make to the current setup. "That is entertainment," Lehrer said of the outbursts. "Anybody who makes any noise at all, I would hold them up to public ridicule."
CNN, which hosts the next debate in Jacksonville on Thursday, has been a bit less definitive, saying it will ask the audience to refrain from shouting or booing if it disrupts the debate.
Of course, crowd noise is something which is prohibited during debates for the general election. The idea is, such an important discussion requires focusing on the candidates' statements, not how they play to the crowd.
Odd to see some Republicans resisting that notion while fighting for the nomination.