Forget the 17 Republican candidates -- the real winner of the two Republican debates on Thursday was Fox News. Fox’s moderators dictated the tone and themes of the debate, solidifying the network’s position as a Republican agenda-setter.
First and foremost, Fox successfully targeted would-be candidate Donald Trump, saving the actual candidates the trouble of doing it themselves.
The moderators of the main debate -- Megyn Kelly, Brett Baier and Chris Wallace -- were swinging at Trump right out of the gate. Baier opened the debate by asking whether any of the candidates on the stage would not pledge to support the eventual Republican nominee or rule out a third-party run. It was formally directed to all of the Republican field, but it was clearly aimed at Trump, who has a history of supporting Democratic candidates and has warned that he may run as an independent. And Trump obliged, refusing to commit to supporting the Republican nominee, a response that elicited boos from the audience.
Later it was Megyn Kelly’s turn to tangle with Trump. Trump had finally met his match.
“You've called women you don't like 'fat pigs,' 'dogs,' 'slobs,' and 'disgusting animals,’” Kelly said, asking him to defend his past remarks. Trump played it off with a joke, quipping, “Only Rosie O’Donnell.” But Kelly did not let it go, insisting that he had said it about many others too. She finally got under Trump’s skin, provoking one of the ugliest and most memorable moments of the debate.
“What I say is what I say,” Trump said. “And honestly, Megyn, if you don't like it, I'm sorry. I've been very nice to you, although I could probably maybe not be, based on the way you have treated me. But I wouldn't do that.”
The exchange had the dual benefit of diminishing Trump even as it aggrandized Kelly, Fox’s rising star.
If the moderators marginalized Trump by training their fire on him, they jettisoned other candidates by giving them little attention. The only candidate who may have fared worse than Trump was neurosurgeon Dr. Ben Carson, who got the least speaking time, and was reduced to joking about it.
It was also Kelly’s moderation that ended up sparking a contentious shouting match between Gov. Chris Christie (R-N.J.) and Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) that gave Christie the opportunity to shine. She specifically framed a question for Christie about NSA spying as a response to Paul’s critique, and insisted that Christie get time to explain himself when Paul interjected. It enabled a crushing blow from Christie.
“Listen, Senator, you know, when you're sitting in a subcommittee, just blowing hot air about this, you can say things like that,” Christie shot back. “When you're responsible for protecting the lives of the American people, then what you need to do is to make sure” people are safe.
Fox’s moderators were the stars of the debate for lesser-polling candidates earlier in the evening as well. Martha MacCallum made waves when she asked former New York Gov. George Pataki if he would agree to spy on mosques. Pataki did not take the bait, but it became a running theme, with Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) endorsing surveillance unprompted later on.
MacCallum even managed to channel the social conservative wing of the Republican base in her mosque surveillance question. She warned Pataki that many Christian Republican voters are wary of government intrusion in religious life.
Of course, as HuffPost has reported, the U.S. government is already spying on American Muslims en masse.
But Fox News could not be bothered with the facts. They were there to win the debates.
And as HuffPost's Nick Baumann noted, the debates showed how Fox News enforces Republican orthodoxy.