Going into the last three GOP debates, the scrutiny was on the candidates. This time, it will be on the moderators.
That's because Tuesday's Fox Business Network/Wall Street Journal primetime debate, which will air at 9 p.m. Eastern from Milwaukee Theater, will broadcast as fallout from the last debate, hosted by CNBC, continues to smolder.
The CNBC debate, which was panned for what many called irrelevant questions and for perceived attacks by moderators, incited a raft of complaints and demands from the candidates and the Republican National Committee (RNC). It also inspired some changes in future debates.
This time the primetime debate will be whittled down from 10 candidates to eight – Chris Christie and Mike Huckabee will instead participate in a preliminary debate – which should dampen some of the on-stage cacophony. Fox Business Network agreed to extend the cut-off time for candidates’ answers from 60 to 90 seconds, and rebuttal time from 30 to 60 seconds. The network also plans to track how long each candidate is speaking, to ensure that equal time is given to each candidate.
For Fox Business Network (FBN) and its main debate moderators, Neil Cavuto and Maria Bartiromo, it's a delicate balancing act: an effort to avoid the glaring criticism CNBC bore during and after its Oct. 28 debate, while still asking tough questions and maintaining control.
Last month's debate is perhaps best remembered for the attacks the candidates lobbed at the moderators and the network.
In one of the debate's most memorable moments, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz complained that the candidates were being treated as if they were in a “cage match." Donald Trump, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, and Florida Sen. Marco Rubio joined what some have reported as being an orchestrated attack, with Gov. Christie accusing the moderators of being rude, "even by New Jersey standards," and Sen. Rubio dubbing the media “Hillary Clinton’s Super PAC."
Following the debate, the RNC suspended plans to partner with CNBC sister-network NBC News on a February debate, and various candidate campaigns attempted to launch a rebellion demanding changes in future debates. Among them, were "mandatory opening and closing statements, a ban on camera shots of candidates’ empty podiums when they take a lavatory break, and pre-approval of bios and on-screen graphics," according to The Guardian. "Questions that involved candidates putting up their hands or that require yes or no answers were also to be banned."
Partly because it is hosted by the Fox media family, which is owned by Roger Ailes, to whom many top Republicans feel deference, Tuesday's FBN debate will not be subject to these demands.
But it will be different from previous debates.
Besides the changes to candidates' answer times, the FBN moderators may avoid questions that appear to be attacks, that could provoke negative reactions, or that could antagonize the candidates.
“My goal is to make myself invisible, that I’m not the issue,” Mr. Cavuto told Politico.
Ms. Bartiromo said she plans to focus on the candidates' economic plans, rather than point-scoring.
“After that [CNBC] debate, I realized, I knew my marching orders ... and that is to help the viewer, help the voter better understand what each candidate’s plan is; is it a realistic plan, can it work and how is it different from the next guy or gal, and that’s what I plan to focus on."
The moderators have their work cut out for them, striving to appear neither obsequious nor antagonistic. They will have to ask tough questions without appearing to be snarky or aggressive.
There's a lot at stake for FBN. The first three GOP debates were ratings powerhouses, drawing between 14 and 24 million viewers. FBN wants a piece of the ratings pie – and an opportunity to outshine its own fierce rival, CNBC.