Even though Super Tuesday has just begun, there is already another TV debate coming up this Thursday on Fox News. The Republican candidates, or at least the remaining ones, will meet in Detroit for a two-hour encounter (9 p.m.) which Fox is calling “pivotal,” in advance of primaries in Michigan (March 8) and Florida and Ohio (March 15). But just how pivotal will be a little clearer by the end of today.
Meanwhile, the big news: Donald Trump will be on hand for this debate, He boycotted the last one on Fox.
The debates, beginning Aug. 6 on Fox, have been some of the defining television events of the last year. They have morphed --at times -- into a ribald form of entertainment still searching for a name: “Reality TV” doesn’t seem quite right, but comes close enough. Moderators have been drawn into the debates as well, on-screen and off. Donald Trump’s running feud with FNC’s Megyn Kelly led to his exit from the last Fox debate, on the eve of the Iowa caucuses. But he’ll be back for this one however, and so will Kelly.
Have the debates -- now profit centers for CNN and FNC (the Republican National Committee has boycotted NBC) -- turned into spectacle beyond the control of moderators? Have they surpassed their purpose, with Super Tuesday appearing to establish a big electoral advantage for Trump? Is there anything left to ask by this point -- or is there everything left to ask, notably in the wake of the wild melee recently on CNN?
I threw a few of these questions to Chris Wallace, moderator of “Fox News Sunday,” who will return to the podium (with Kelly and Bret Baier) again this Thursday.
What did you think of the CNN debate last week -- the one where Marco Rubio repeatedly called Trump a “con man” and after a while, all you could hear was Wolf Blitzer pleading through the noise, “gentlemen, gentlemen ...”?
“If you could see someone on that stage acting like a president, you’ve got better eyesight than I do. It was all kind of personal attack and there was very little substantive discussion.”
How did the thing go so completely off the rails?
“Clearly Rubio and [TED]Cruz were rightly worried that Trump is going to steamroll this nomination and they were doing anything to stop him. Desperate times call for desperate measures. But whether the field will still be what it is,[ON THURSDAY] I don’t know.”
Other than Trump, who will be at the debate Thursday?
“Look, my prediction meter is broken and has been retired for the rest of the spring. I’ve been wrong all along. If you tell me what Super Tuesday will be then we’ll tell you what the situation on Thursday will be. We’ll have to react very quickly because the dynamism of the race will be different [AND]the questions will be different.”
Trump, of course, boycotted the last debate. Why is he back?
“The answer to almost everything you could ask me about this is, I don’t know. My feeling with these things is stay in your lane -- I have enough to do. I had a whole set of questions [for the last debate]prepared in the event that it did include Trump and in the event that it did not. [BUT]he did lose that one key contest[IN IOWA]. Maybe he lost because he skipped the debate.
Obviously and for all to see, the CNN debate at times went wildly out of control. As the heat builds on the remaining candidates, does the potential for “wildly out of control” grow?
“You have to play it as it happens [BUT]it’s a little bit like being a boxing ref. If the fighters are in a clinch but each have an arm free, he lets it go on. If they continue going at each other, this is a debate. I’m not going to interrupt them. If they’re in a clinch, I will say let’s break it up, and then try to get a reset. But you know my own feelings, and I’ve said before that the moderator should be as invisible as possible.
Will you allow the ad hominem personal attacks?
“Sure, absolutely. It’s a political campaign and you can say anything you want. But in hearing[AN ATTACK], I’d also like to hear why. But it’s a rough and tumble business and they’re going to go at it [AND]we’ll try to shape and direct and if necessary bring order to this.”
These debates, beginning with yours, have been some of the defining events -- TV and political -- of the season. Have they succeeded or have they simply been WWE spectacles, without much substance but a lot of heat?
“They have been important and there has been a winnowing effect, some people having done well and having strengthened themselves through these debates and others not so well -- Jeb Bush [who dropped out after the South Carolina primary]and others dramatically weakened their position. So yes, they do matter. And some people will say we had too much influence in determining the undercards.[some candidates, pushed into the so-called “kiddie debates” outside of primetime were bitterly critical of being excluded] But because people went back and forth from the undercards [TO PRIME]it did work and helped some to strengthen their poll numbers.”
Hillary Clinton has still declined to come on “Fox News Sunday.” What’s going on there?
“If you saw last week [FEB. 21]I called out a couple of her communications people. [Specifically, the transcript from that edition reads, in part: “We reached out to her campaign officials in charge of this sort of thing, communications director Jennifer Palmieri, and press secretary Nick Merrill. Neither of them had the courtesy to even answer our phone calls and emails.”]Well, the next day after I put up their pictures [ON TV]they did respond.”
Why won’t she talk to you?
“Maybe she will. Look, we run our show and they run their campaign, and they don’t tell us what to do and we don’t tell them.”