FOX News Channel’s monster TV ratings when it hosted the first Republican presidential debate back in August were undoubtedly helped by the fact that one of three moderators, Bret Baier, got the presidential candidates to make news with his very first question.
“Is there anyone on stage — 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.
One man raised his hand: Donald Trump. Viewers were hooked.
“If you remember, back then, that was the issue, and it was the question that everybody was talking about,” Baier told the Miami Herald last week. “It was shortly thereafter that [Trump] signed the RNC’s pledge, even though he didn’t do it on stage that night.”
Now Baier gets to do it again, five months later, this time in the last GOP faceoff Thursday night before voting begins. Baier, the network’s chief political anchor, will team up with co-moderators Megyn Kelly and Chris Wallace in a Des Moines debate that will take place four days before the Iowa caucuses.
Eight candidates made the cut, Baier announced on Special Report with Bret Baier Tuesday from Des Moines: celebrity businessman Trump, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, Ohio Gov. John Kasich and Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul.
Trump, unhappy once again with moderator Kelly and with the network, said later that he would boycott the debate. He had threatened to do so, which FOX had dismissed as a way to “build up audience” for the televised event. The network also called him a “wise guy.”
The debate, hosted in partnership with Google, will air at 9 p.m. Thursday, two hours after four less popular candidates — former Hewlett-Packard chief executive Carly Fiorina, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum and former Virginia Gov. Jim Gilmore — take the stage. FOX will also stream the debate online, without requiring users to log-in through a cable or satellite provider.
Gilmore hadn’t qualified for a debate stage since August. A record 24 million people watched the main event Aug. 6 in Cleveland.
The biggest change since, according to Baier?
“We have this massive binder of transcripts of every debate so far — every question, every topic,” he said. “That adds a new element, a new wrinkle to the preparation.”
Baier, who has been with FOX since 1998, said he, Wallace and Kelly — whom Trump lambasted after Cleveland — are “comfortable in our skin” with high-profile debates. Their prep time right before the big event is devoted to crafting the wording for each question, which Baier called “the tightest possible question you can ask that still has the impact that you’re looking for.”
“We are brutal with each other — brutally honest, and brutally critiquing and editing,” he said. “I’ve just found that the best questions are the shortest.”
With fewer candidates on stage – there were 10 in Cleveland – “we’re going to let it breathe as much as we can,” Baier said.
Thursday will mark the seventh of 12 debates planned by the GOP, including another one hosted by FOX in March. But Baier said he expects renewed interest ahead of the caucuses.
“No one would have predicted that this is where we’d be, with Trump and Cruz leading in Iowa,” he said. “And maybe one of them could go on a roll and win the nomination.”