The three Fox News anchors who ran the Republican debate — Chris Wallace, Megyn Kelly and Bret Baier — showed they can be as unsparing toward conservatives as they are with liberals.
CLEVELAND — Dredging up old misstatements. Questioning someone’s temperamental fitness to be president. Suggesting that someone else might let a woman die rather than allow her to have an abortion.
The Republican presidential candidates’ debate Thursday was notable for its pointed accusations, and for the sometimes-awkward glowering and silences that followed.
And that was just the moderators.
The triumvirate of Fox News anchors who ran the two-hour event — Chris Wallace, Megyn Kelly and Bret Baier — seemed to have one mission above all else in questioning the 10 would-be presidents they faced at the Quicken Loans Arena: Make them squirm.
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There was more than just good television at stake. For the journalists of Fox News, the debate offered a potential defining moment in front of millions of people, during one of the most anticipated political events of the year.
This was an opportunity to demonstrate that their network is not, as its critics have charged, a blindly loyal propaganda division of the Republican Party, that Fox journalists can be as unsparing toward conservatives as they are with liberals, and that they can eviscerate with equal opportunity if they choose.
The candidates took note.
“I don’t think they like me very much,” said Donald Trump after Kelly asked him, “When did you actually become a Republican?” After the debate, Trump walked into the media area to register his displeasure again. “The questions to me were not nice,” he said.
But Kelly and her counterparts did not reserve their combativeness for Trump. “You thought Alan Greenspan had been Treasury secretary instead of Federal Reserve chair,” Kelly told Ben Carson, a retired neurosurgeon.
“Would you really let a mother die rather than have an abortion?” she asked Gov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin, citing his opposition to abortion in all circumstances.
The debate in many ways displayed Fox News in its purest form of shout-down, finger-wagging, game-show theatricality. When candidates spoke too long, a bell like something out of “The Price Is Right” rang twice.
From the opening moments of the debate, the moderators knew where to turn the screws. Baier started with a question that was ostensibly pointed at all 10 candidates but was really meant for just one: Trump.
“Is there anyone onstage — and can I see hands — who is unwilling tonight to pledge your support to the eventual nominee of the Republican Party and pledge to not run an independent campaign against that person?” Baier asked.
Trump, who has repeatedly refused to rule out a third-party run, paused in apparent contemplation, then raised his hand.
Baier reminded him where he was. “Mr. Trump, to be clear, you’re standing on a Republican primary debate stage.”
Wallace cut Trump off as he tried to object to another question about the corporate bankruptcies in his past. “Well, sir,” Wallace said with the wave of his index finger, “Let’s just talk about the latest example.” He then went on to describe how lenders to Trump’s company had lost more than $1 billion and some 1,100 people had been laid off.
The debate Fox held earlier with the candidates who did not have strong enough poll numbers to qualify for the main event was not much gentler toward its participants.
As if it were not humiliating enough to be addressing a virtually empty basketball arena — there was no audience for them because Fox decided to allow spectators only for the main event — the candidates were subjected to some jarring questions right off the bat.
Essentially, the subtext was this: You’ve got to be kidding, right?
To Gov. Bobby Jindal: Almost no one in Louisiana likes you. To Rick Perry, the former Texas governor: You can’t possibly think anyone would vote for you after your last presidential campaign. To Jim Gilmore, the former governor of Virginia: Aren’t you too old? To George Pataki, the former New York governor: Who are you again?
And then, if that did not sufficiently dent their self-confidence, there were the unflattering comparisons with Trump. “Is he getting the better of you?” Martha MacCallum, one of the moderators of the earlier debate, asked Carly Fiorina, the former chief executive of Hewlett-Packard.
Though the moderators were careful not to direct a disproportionate amount of questions to Trump, he received many of the most memorable and sharply worded ones.
“You’ve called women you don’t like fat, pigs, dogs, slobs and disgusting animals,” Kelly said.
She was not done. “You once told a contestant on ‘Celebrity Apprentice’ it would be a pretty picture to see her on her knees,” she said. “Does that sound to you like the temperament of a man we should elect as president?”
Not all the theater was in the questions. Sometimes the moderators were more than willing to remain silent.
In the most overheated confrontations of the evening, Kelly teed up Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey with a question about whether he really meant it when he said that Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, because of his opposition to the USA Patriot Act, should shoulder some of the blame in the event of another terrorist attack on the United States. When Christie responded that, yes, he meant it, Paul opened up on him while Kelly sat back with a look of contentment.
Only toward the end did the moderators’ focus wander in softly lobbed questions about God.
By the time the debate was winding down, the moderators seemed to realize the toll they had exacted. In her closing remarks, Kelly asked the candidates if they were relieved the debate was over. “They don’t look relieved,” she said, answering her own question. “They’re like, ‘Get me out of here.’ ”