Just like their Fox News counterparts from the first GOP debate in August, Fox Business Network moderators Maria Bartiromo and Neil Cavuto will not lie down and die for the eight Republican candidates on stage Tuesday night. Especially after their rivals at CNBC bungled the last debate.
Despite the Fox brand’s reputation for being Republican-friendly territory, expect this latest showdown to be more serious than previous affairs, with moderators focused on tough questions about economic policy and then unwilling to become punching bags for the candidates.
“If these guys can’t handle moderators, how are they gonna handle China and Russia?” Bartiromo told The Daily Beast’s Lloyd Grove, echoing President Obama. “You should be able to know that you’re going to be asked any question. It’s all fair game.”
When Bartiromo was a CNBC anchor in 2011, she earned positive reviews for her moderating of a GOP debate, thanks to her insistence that candidates sufficiently answer the questions and her repeated clashes with some of the more slippery characters on the stage.
She famously tangled with Newt Gingrich, whose deflective tactic of moderator-bashing is the blueprint for Tuesday night’s candidates. And Bartiromo was simply relentless.
When the former House speaker blustered about not being given enough time to explain his health care plans, she told him with a straight face, “Take all the time you need.” He continued to complain, so she put her foot down: “Do you want to answer the question tonight on health care or no?” His bluff had backfired.
During the same debate, Gingrich accused CNBC of being biased in favor of Occupy Wall Street. “What is the media reporting inaccurately about the economy?” Bartiromo asked, again with a stern face. Gingrich mockingly laughed at her, and conservatives ate it up. But her refusal to take his accusations at face value proved she was not going to take a passive approach.
And Cavuto is no slouch, either. Although it’s fair to say he generally leans rightward on the political scale, the former debate team captain has a history of skeptically interviewing Republican politicians, especially when the questions involve economics.
When GOP also-ran Rick Santorum refused to say whether his touting of stable marriages as good for the economy also extended to same-sex couples, Cavuto put the screws to him. Rather than take a directly hostile tone, however, the Fox host calmly mentioned the scenario multiple times to the indignant former senator, who effectively hanged himself with non-answers.
And after House Republicans announced a plan to sue President Obama over his executive orders back in 2014, Cavuto called Rep. Michele Bachmann “silly” on-air and told her, to her face, that Republicans were hypocrites for haranguing the president over the same principles they violate when their party is in power.
Cavuto also understands the importance of a debate moderator asking uncomfortable questions—and not backing down when the candidates feign outrage. Following Gingrich’s infamous debate night battle with CNN’s John King over questions about his alleged “open marriage,” Cavuto excoriated the Republican candidate.
“Enough!” he said on Fox. “Enough with making a big deal out of a question that was fair and an issue that was and is germane. Enough with making CNN’s reporter a villain and Newt Gingrich a hero for dodging it.”
“Fair is fair,” he continued. “Gingrich is free to swat it away and say he has made peace with God for past transgressions, but save the piety.”
That low tolerance for B.S. will prove handy in Tuesday night’s FBN event.
After all, instead of one Gingrich on stage, Cavuto, Bartiromo, and Wall Street Journal editor Gerard Baker will face a Trump, a Carson, and a Cruz—all of whom have made their conservative beef with the so-called mainstream media a crux of their debate strategies.
Andrew Kirell worked at the Fox Business Network from 2009 to 2012.