Donald Trump’s opponents in the next Republican presidential debate will ostensibly be Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida and the rest of the GOP field.
But after Fox News announced Monday that the Jan. 28 forum will feature the same panel that ran the first one in August, perhaps the most buzzworthy matchup will pit Trump against moderator Megyn Kelly.
In case you’ve somehow forgotten, Kelly’s question to Trump about his pattern of disparaging remarks about women was the defining moment of the first debate back in August.
And things escalated the next day when Trump said on CNN that Kelly had “blood coming out of her wherever” when she posed the question.
Since then, Trump has continued to rip Kelly on Twitter, despite attempts by Fox News boss Roger Ailes to intervene and strike and accord. In an interview for the Nov. 30 edition of Adweek, Ailes recounted a conversation with Trump.
Look, I’ve always had the same relationship with Donald for 30 years. It’s a friendly relationship, surprisingly enough. I did call him after the first go-round, and I said, “What the hell is wrong with you? The United States is at war with every goddamn country in the Middle East, and you’re at war with Megyn Kelly and you think that looks good? It doesn’t look good.”
“What the hell is wrong with you?” I’m going to guess that not many people speak to The Donald that way. Ailes’s words clearly haven’t had the desired effect, however -- Trump has been harder on Fox in recent weeks than just about anyone, making Ailes appear less influential than he seemed to think when he spoke with Trump. And after reportedly threatening Trump with "war" if the real estate magnate didn't let up, Ailes hasn't followed through. That's the more professional route, but it might look to some like backing down.
Now, the Fox chief has stopped talking and is using his actions. Putting Kelly back in the ring (along with Chris Wallace and Bret Baier) is a bold statement by Ailes, a former aide to President Richard Nixon, about who’s the real heavyweight here.
And Ailes might have a point. Trump loves to compare poll numbers, right? His best recent result shows him with 41 percent support in the Republican primary, and a little more than half of Republicans approving of him. Meanwhile, 88 percent of conservatives trust Fox News.
Trump supporters will probably continue to back him if he mixes it up with Fox, but feuding with the network probably doesn't help him expand his appeal in the broader GOP -- something he needs to do if he's to win once the field is trimmed.
We’ve already seen Trump in a debate try to placate a moderator with whom he has previously clashed. Recall that in the second debate, he bantered with conservative radio host Hugh Hewitt about being the “best interview in America.” That followed an earlier interview with Hewitt in which Trump didn’t know the names of several Middle Eastern leaders, prompting the embarrassed GOP front-runner to lash out on Twitter.
Trump’s fury toward Kelly has been more intense, but I expect a similar attempt to defuse things — at least for one night. Going after one of Fox’s most popular personalities in an arena in which Fox has so much control over the proceedings wouldn’t be smart, unless Kelly does something to open the door to it.
As for Kelly, she must perform a difficult balancing act. She won't want to look as if she's provoking Trump, nor will she want to appear afraid of asking tough questions. I'm guessing she'll ask some pointed questions but stick to policy when she does. The query that set off Trump in August was about his character: "Does that sound to you like the temperament of a man we should elect as president?" she asked, after citing some of the derogatory terms he has used to describe women.
Trump's inflammatory rhetoric is such a significant issue in the race that the question was fair, but it's also well-worn territory by now. There's plenty to discuss on immigration, foreign policy and the economy, and I suspect that's where Kelly and her colleagues will keep the focus.
In other words, there's a good chance Trump vs. Kelly, Part 2, won't be nearly the clash that it was before.