When Fox Business Network hosted its first-ever GOP debate back in November, it had a dual objective: stand out in contrast to the widely–panned CNBC GOP debate that preceded it, and establish its identity in front of a new audience. The network, and FBN moderators Maria Bartiromo, Neil Cavuto, Trish Regan and Sandra Smith did just that–well enough to make November its highest-rated month ever, well enough to receive a second hosting invitation.
“I’m, frankly, proud that they asked us to do another [debate],” says FBN host and global markets editor Maria Bartiromo, who, along with Neil Cavuto, reprises her role as moderator tonight. “Clearly, the fact that we stuck to the issues, the fact that we helped draw out the policies from the candidates and draw out specific information that the public wanted to hear resonated, and so I’m happy about that. This second debate is a testament to what’s happening at the Fox business network.”
The context, this time around, is different. “We are at a moment right now where people are actually making decisions. They’re narrowing down their choices,” says Bartiromo. Set as this debate is between Tuesday’s State of the Union address and February’s Iowa Caucus, the mood will be different. So too will the urgency, in terms of candidates looking to make a final impression on voters before their fates are potentially decided in Iowa and New Hampshire, and in terms of which topics, as per FNC host and FBN reporter Sandra Smith, “are most important to the American people.” Smith, who is back for a second time as moderator of the undercard debate, along with Trish Regan, says, “The needs of the voter have changed. Polling show that national security and keeping their families safe, and the economy are the number one issues that the American family faces right now.”
The topics covered in the debates will fall under those areas, and will also touch on crime and gun control.
The phrase both Bartiromo and Smith have used to describe their approach to tonight’s debate it “let it breathe.” It is an all-encompassing idea, from giving candidates enough time to respond to a question, other candidates an opportunity to challenge responses, and the moderators themselves the space to follow up.
“You can’t just ask a question, and then whatever they answer go to your next question,” says Bartiromo. “No. You have to follow up, and you have to say, ‘Wait a minute. This is what I’m asking. This is what the American people want to know. You’re not answering their question.'”
“We did a little of that in the last debate. We have to do that again and we have to do more of it. Candidates are on a campaign trail. They have their talking points. They know exactly what messages they want to get out. They will take it wherever they want to take it. I have to be ready, and Neil has to, we both have to be ready and make sure we’re listening and we’re following up.”
This approach will require culling questions, both in the lead up to the debate and as it happens. “You can’t just be so married to your questions that whatever they say, you’re going to your next question. I have a lot of questions that I know are good questions, but guess what? If they don’t answer the earlier question, the other questions die,” says Bartiromo.
With an undercard debate that currently stands at three participants, Smith and Regan will have more space to oversee extended discussions. “There’s a little more time to do that when you have three or four candidates on that stage. At the same time, constraints will apply: 90 seconds to answer a question, 30 more if somebody uses your name in an answer. I think it’s important to have a real debate and let the candidates work it out between themselves.”
But while Smith plans to encourages debate among candidates, “follow up questions are going to be key to get clarity for the audience,” she says. The presence of a live audience may also play into the course of questioning. “We do have the benefit of a live audience,” she says, and if the moderators feel a moment or topic is capturing audience interest, they may linger there.
The biggest story in the lead up to the undercard debate has been the expected absence of Sen. Rand Paul, who, upon learning he had been relegated to the undercard, announced he would not be participating in the debate.
“I’m not here to lend any sort of campaign advice to Rand Paul, but it is a popular thought that if you’re running for the presidency you might want to show up on the debate stage,” says Smith. “It’s an interesting decision on his part. If he chooses not to come, it’s entirely his decision. We don’t change the criteria and this is how it turned out. He’s still invited. If he wants to come, he’s still welcome.”
The undercard debate starts at 6 p.m. ET and the primetime debate at 9 p.m. ET on Fox Business Network. As with the previous FBN debate, the channel will be unbundled on a number of cable providers, including DIRECTV and Cox Communications, allowing for greater distribution.