Fox Business Network hasn’t exactly been subtle about its plan to make Tuesday’s Republican presidential primary debate better than the last one.
Here’s the script of a 10-second promo for the event in Milwaukee: “CNBC never asked the real questions, never covered the real issues. That’s why on November 10, the real debate about our economy and our future is only on Fox Business Network.”
The people most responsible for ensuring that Fox Business backs up its trash talk are moderators Maria Bartiromo and Neil Cavuto. After their counterparts at CNBC were widely panned for losing control of the proceedings in Boulder, Colo., two weeks ago -- and accused of liberal bias by the candidates and their supporters -- Bartiromo and Cavuto can expect more than the regular dose of scrutiny.
Before heading to Wisconsin, the moderators spoke separately with The Fix about their preparations. (Hint: Cavuto studies old debate tape like a coach studies game film.) Their responses to similar questions have been combined and edited for clarity and length.
THE FIX: It seems like we’re in a climate where the candidates are ready to jump on any question they think is too tough or unfair. Are you ready for that?
CAVUTO: It’s a little nerve-racking. I try to tackle it like a show or a big interview. I just try to button it down, get it right, make sure I do my research correctly, make sure our facts are right, our tone is right. We want to make sure this debate is not so much about us but about the candidates. Invariably, someone will be unhappy.
BARTIROMO: I’m a little — I don’t know if it’s nerves or being anxious — but of course. All of a sudden, it’s become cool to beat up the moderator.
THE FIX: After the last debate, some of the candidates suggested future debates should be moderated by conservatives. Are you what the doctor ordered?
BARTIROMO: Not at all. I’m an independent. I’ve voted both ways in my life. I come at this from the standpoint of, “Here are the issues; what are you planning to do about it?”
CAVUTO: No. I understand candidates getting annoyed, but they better be careful about looking like whiners and babies. I see this on the right and the left. I think you can ask very tough questions without coming off like an ass. I think it’s incumbent on us to know and appreciate the difference.
THE FIX: Which issues will you focus on in your questions?
BARTIROMO: The number one issue for the American voter today is jobs — jobs and wages. I’m going to try to solicit information that will arm the viewer with as much information as possible as they make their decision about whom to vote for.
CAVUTO: All the big issues are economic. They’re all driven by people’s sense of security with their jobs, whether they’re paying too much in taxes, whether Social Security is going to be there. We don’t have to go for gotcha questions or get snarky about it. We just want answers on these money issues.
THE FIX: What should a moderator’s role be? Should you try to be a real-time fact checker, or should you just ask a question and get out of the way?
BARTIROMO: I think you have to challenge. You have to know your content cold, so that you can say, “Well, that’s not true.” And you want to be able to do that on the spot so that the moment doesn’t leave you.
CAVUTO: I love history, and I love looking at prior debates, and I’ve looked at a good many of them over the last few months. One thing I’ve noticed is the best moderators are invisible; you just remember the answers. It was a moderator who asked Ronald Reagan if he was too old for the job, but it was Ronald Reagan’s famous answer that he wouldn’t hold his opponent’s youth against him that stood the test of time.
THE FIX: What’s your strategy if -- or when -- a candidate pushes back and says, “Hey, that’s not a fair question?"
BARTIROMO: Hopefully it is a fair question. Look, I’m working on behalf of the voter, that person who needs information to make a decision. If it helps educate and empower the voter, then it’s a fair question.
CAVUTO: You can’t prepare for it. If we don’t show favorites, I think we’ll be okay. But it’s going to happen. As we get closer to the caucuses and primaries, some candidates are going to get desperate. Some of them are sweating. They’re losing donors, or their poll numbers aren’t good. Even if the question is perfectly sound, you’re going to lash out at the questioner.