By inviting only the ten top-polling candidates in the crowded GOP field to participate in the first Republican primary debate, Fox News has made the August 6 event, cohosted with Facebook, controversial before it starts (ten is the most candidates ever onstage, but the Republican field now numbers 16). We asked Fox anchor Bret Baier, who is moderating along with Chris Wallace and Megyn Kelly, about his debate prep.
Is it harder to knock politicians off their talking points in a group setting?
A lot tougher. Not to give away trade secrets, but you’ve got to absorb some of the talking points into the question: “Understanding that you feel X,Y, and Z….” You take it off the table at the beginning.
You love presenting candidates with their previous statements.
Yeah, that’s my question style. Which is Tim Russert’s question style. That’s a guy that I really looked up to as far as how to frame things.
What’s a bigger motivation: making good television or doing a debate that’s best for democracy? Sometimes the best TV moments—Lloyd Bentsen telling Dan Quayle, “You’re no Jack Kennedy”—are awesome TV, but they don’t tell us much about the race.
Well, that particular debate dealt with the gravitas question of Dan Quayle. And it opened a vulnerability that he overcame in the race.
You remembered that pretty quickly. Are you a student of debates?
Oh, yeah, very much. You look back across the years and some of those moments have framed whole races. Reagan/Mondale. Or Reagan/Carter—“There you go again.”
How do you work up your questions?
The worst are the ones that are rambling and have a preamble, which gives politicians an off-ramp: They hear something in a question to say, “Oh, well, there it is”—exit stage left here. So you try and keep them short and tight.
What kind of information do you get through your earpiece?
We’ll have a team fact-checking on the fly. And we’ll also have interaction with the viewers through Facebook. Facebook has a lot of data that can tell you how broad swaths of people feel about an issue.
Fox is limiting participation in this debate to the top ten candidates in national polls [there could be more if candidates are tied]. That means a candidate who is doing well in the first primary states but not nationally could end up in the second place debate, which will air earlier.
So our answer to that is couplefold. One is, it’s the most candidates on stage ever. Two is the debate’s in Ohio and it’s a national debate–we’re a national network. And three is, we’re going to have a debate in Iowa right before the caucuses. And they may have different criteria for that.
Do you have a specific plan for Donald Trump?
We’ll deal with Trump like any other candidate. Everyone will know the rules—and we’ll enforce them.
Do you have any input into the debate’s wrap-up sound? One of the ones you used in 2011 sounded like an instant- message alert.
I remember this discussion. We were trying to get something that was a forward-leaning, kind of high-tech vibe, and I just don’t think it worked.