Without Trump, Fox News May Get Down To Business At Republican Debate

Bret Baier has prepared a massive binder of facts, quotes and candidate positions that he has been scanning in these days before Fox News Channel takes another crack at handling a debate among the Republican candidates in the 2016 Presidential race. “It’s got information on every question asked of every candidate on every topic that has been asked in a previous debate,” the anchor said. “It’s a pretty big binder.”

Up until Tuesday night, the host of Fox News’ “Special Report” labored under the notion that no amount of study would remove the challenge facing him and his colleagues, Megyn Kelly and Chris Wallace – a possible blow-up between Kelly and Donald Trump. Now, Baier has suggested, the trio of anchors might be able to stick to its knitting.

Trump declared Tuesday evening that he would not take part in the next Republican debate, which Fox News is televising this Thursday. It’s the latest hard shove between the candidate and the 21st Century Fox-owned cable news outlet, who have sparred over Megyn Kelly’s presence in the event. Trump didn’t like the questions she asked at a debate Fox News televised last year and Fox News, like many news outlets, said in a recent statement that a candidate should not be able to dictate terms about moderators and questions and suggested the Trump campaign was making Kelly an issue to spark publicity.

Baier understood there was “going to be some focus on the first time Megyn asks Mr. Trump a question,” he said in an interview that took place before Trump announced his decision to withdraw, “but we are going to get by that eventually, and there will be other issues and other topics,”  After all, he said, “ the goal here it to help voters decide.” Baier was busy preparing for the debate, according to a Fox News spokesperson, and so was unavailable for comment after Trump made his remarks about leaving the debate.

The best of intentions may not be enough to slay the elephant in the room (who will become the one holding forth elsewhere in Iowa on the night of the event). Candidates are bound to mention Trump. Baier, Kelly and Wallace may invoke his name or his policies and prod a candidate to explain how his policies are different from the leader in the race. Every time his name is cited, it will be a reminder of the absent voice and the bickering going on between media outlet and candidate.

Baier and his colleagues are going to hole up in “lockdown sessions” inside a hotel room in Des Moines, Iowa, and work though a strategy they hope will pry new information out of all the candidates with just days to go before the Iowa caucus, an important stop on the current campaign trail. There have been many Republican debates, and all of them have generated outsize ratings and a bit of a circus atmosphere for the networks that broadcast them. But this one, said Baier, could have a somewhat more serious focus.

As voting time nears, viewers “want to see the contrasts between the candidates, so I hope we can facilitate that,” he said, “The challenge is in the phrasing and how the questions are whittled down. We try to make them as tight as possible. Megyn, Chris and I are working to help each other make the questions better.” The goal, he said, is to not let a candidate “have an off-ramp to get back to a stump speech.”

Baier acknowledged the debates have lured a different crowd than has been the norm in recent years. “This is just a different field, much more anti-establishment, much more anti-Washington,” he noted, “There’s much more of this hunger for authenticity in candidates that is always there, but is more prevalent this year. Outsiders are perfectly welcome.”

The anchor is not above fanning flames. It was Baier, after all, who in the August debate televised by Fox News surprised the candidates by asking them to raise their hands if they would refuse to pledge support to the Republican nominee and not run as an independent against him or her. Only Trump raised his hand, in the process boosting his profile.

Will Baier try something similar in this go-round? “I can’t reveal my cards,” he said.  The debate “will be equally balanced between interesting ways to ask things and letting it all breathe.”



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