When Maria Bartiromo and Neil Cavuto kick off Fox Business Network’s debate on Tuesday evening, they’re going for one thing more important than ratings. They want the Republicans running for the White House to offer specifics.
The business duo will guide the conversation for the relatively new network—it launched in 2007—as back-to-back debates take place in a Milwaukee theater. The lesser-polling candidates will kick things off with an undercard debate, while the eight top-polling contenders will face-off in primetime.
Ahead of the debate, TIME spoke separately with the business journalists about what they want to see from the candidates, how they’re preparing and why they know candidates can’t get enough time to bash the questioners. These are lightly edited transcripts.
What should we be looking for in Milwaukee?
BARTIROMO: What the plans are from the candidates and how each plan differentiates from the next one. We’re going to hopefully try to help viewers and voters better understand what the positions are of these candidates and how to distinguish them.
Can you get that from a debate?
I think you can. I think you can certainly get the nuts and bolts of their plan—if they have one. And if they don’t, you’ll get that, too. You can also get a differentiation because you’re talking with different people and they’re going to prioritize different things.
You know your subject here. How comfortable will you be to get down into the weeds and see what the substance is?
My role as a moderator is to ensure that we are getting detail and specificity in terms of their plans for the economy, for foreign policy and also, you can get a certain tone about their leadership and governing style. I will be challenging them if we’re not hearing those kinds of specifics.
Your old buddies over at CNBC tried that and things didn’t go the way they had hoped. How are you preparing, having seen what they went through?
I’m going to be straightforward in terms of what the issues of the day are. You’ve got an economy that is stuck in neutral. You’ve got 40% of working-age Americans without a job and they’ve stopped looking. These are real issues. Wages haven’t moved in so many years. Then, of course, you’ve got the foreign policy issues and the costs of them. You’ve got $600 billion just on defense spending. My job is to ensure that we are nailing down the important issues, nailing down what they have to say about those issues and nailing down whether they seem realistic. Could their plans work?
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By the end of the last debate, a lot of the talk was about the moderators. Do you think that was fair?
After the last debate, it was abundantly clear that we need to remind ourselves why we are doing these debates: to help the voter better understand the plans and to better distinguish the plans. I do think that in some of the questions, there was some bias that came out and I do think that some of the questions it was very much about poking holes in each one of the candidates. I don’t know that the viewer was served in terms of truly understand what the candidates were trying to do. Do you have a clear idea in terms of what each candidate is trying to do what?
I don’t. And that’s a problem.
You’re a journalist. I mean, you’ve got everything at your fingertips. So do I. But at this point in the cycle, we’re four debates in, we should have a better idea. Part of that is the candidates. Some of them are being very vague. Part of it is an unwillingness to stick to the issues and a willingness to want to see a catfight.
It’s not just the catfight among the candidates. The candidates up on stage at the last debate turned on the moderators when they didn’t like the question.
I think President Obama was accurate when he said, look, if you can’t handle these three moderators, I don’t know how you’re going to handle China and Russia. That’s a fair point. The candidates need to understand this is the big time. If they’re going to stick their necks out there, people are expecting them to answer questions. Having said that, I do think that there was bias and trying to embarrass the candidates.
After the last debate, candidates started writing letters with demands, working the refs, trying to dictate how the moderators will behave. How has that affected how you prepare?
It really has not affected it. Of course, we’re journalists. We’re not going to change our ways of doing things because the candidates say they don’t like this. It hasn’t affected me.
We shouldn’t be expecting Donald Trump to be dictating what graphics will be on the screen then?
(laughter) Two words: As if.
Come Wednesday morning, what headline would be a success for you guys?
That it was fair and balanced. That viewers came away from the debate better informed.
What should be on the watch for on Tuesday in Milwaukee?
CAVUTO: Well, hopefully economic and business issues will be addressed. These candidates—and this is the nature of politicians—they can speak in broad platitudes, on the Left and the Right, about the economy. But they’re rarely held to specifics. The closer we get to the (Iowa) caucuses, there’s more of a tendency on these guys’ part not to get into specifics, on economic matters in particularly. It’s one thing to criticize the pace of this recovery or whether it’s the jobs gain, but then you have to start spelling out what you would do. It’s incumbent on us as a business network to do that.
Can you get to that in a debate?
You raise a good point. It’s not an interview. Even in the case of the first debate with four people, or the second debate with eight people, time is tight and you’ve got a crowd. The best you can do is lay out a couple of the very big issues. Jobs, certainly among them. You need to improve the nature of this recovery. Very few would doubt that we’ve got a recovery going on. Republicans say it could be a better recovery. How would they make it better? You’ve got to hold them to that without getting into the stump speeches. That’s our challenge.
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Your friends over at CNBC tried to do that and they faced a giant backlash. They tried to get them off the talking points and the moderators became the biggest topic the next day. How do you brace yourself for that?
You’ve got to make sure that you stick to substance in the questions. Sometimes, candidates will seize on what they call the tone of the question rather than the underlying question. We just want to know specifically what you would do, for instance, to create jobs, what you would do to hold CEOs accountable, what you would do to hold the government to be more fiscally disciplined, where you would cull spending if you call the other side aggressive when it comes to giving away goodies, what kind of goodies would you take back.
CNBC was criticized, but I think it was not entirely their fault. The closer we get to the Iowa caucuses get, the more desperate a lot of the candidates will be. We’re some weeks into this now and given the fortunes of some candidates—or they’re falling off the radar—they will lash back to stay relevant and to stay out there.
More likely than not, you’ll see them play off the question by going after the questioner. I tell my colleagues let’s make sure we’re doing our job and we’re going for the facts and not the jugular, that we’re going for information and not a quick clip. This is not about us. This is about them, this is about getting good answers from them and fostering the debate and having a healthy respect.
There’s a distinct possibility that someone on either of those stages could be the next President of the United States. If that’s not humbling for a moderator, I don’t know what is. I know it sounds weird for a guy who wears makeup to talk about humility, but I think it’s important for us to remember that these debates are about the people debating and not the people questioning.
You talk about turning the tables on the media. Ted Cruz got a question about a government shutdown and he did a diatribe on media bias. And it was a winning moment for him. There is the potential here for the candidates to never answer your questions.
They will take almost any question and turn it around on you. I dare say that if Mother Teresa were alive and asking questions, they’d tear her apart. I’m cognizant of that. You give yourself more room to avoid that if you don’t come at them without a hint of being snarky. It’s in the impression. It’s all in how you frame the question and how bulletproof your facts are. We had better have our facts rights, because as soon as you don’t, or as soon as you give them room to say they didn’t do their homework or this is a gotcha question, you don’t help yourself if you’ve not adequately prepared for that moment.
We saw that during the CNBC debate where in at least two cases they had the facts right but the moderators didn’t have the footnotes in front of them.
Well, you’re right. And having done this before, it’s very nerve-wracking experience. It’s very different than hosting a show. It’s a very different environment when you’re in an auditorium with thousands of people and millions watching. I want to make sure that I’m up to that moment. There’s no substitute for hard work and preparation.
There has been more working of the refs on this debate ahead of any other debate that I’ve covered. It seems like there is a public shaming of the moderators to get them to ease up or get them to agree to demands, such as approval of graphics.
That was ridiculous. No news organization should ever answer to that. As this eruption evolved, one by one, they dialed it back. They knew it was stupid. They knew that it helped them. You know, you can never go wrong turning on the media. I know that it works on the Left and the Right. But we as moderators need to keep it focused on the candidates and let them address it.
Some of the most memorable moments come from those who were elicited first by a good question. We don’t remember who asked Ronald Reagan whether he was too old to be President. We just remember his famous answer from his second debate with Mondale that he wouldn’t hold his youth and inexperience against him. It was a zinger and a funny one. He was prepared for such a question. That moment was provided by a moderator whose name we no longer know. But it was a legitimate question.
For John Kennedy, who dealt with the same question, what is a young guy like you thinking you can be President of the United States. All we remember in his answer in that first debate with Nixon: we tried old and experienced. I’m for new frontiers. You know the rest of the story. You don’t remember who asked the question. You know the guy who answered it and set the tone.
All I can do is to facilitate the debate without making myself part of the debate.
If there are no hiccups, what is the headline you want to see in the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel?
That FBN came into this aware that it had to talk about the economy and money issues. If we do that, we make a favorable impression. For many, many people, this is their first shot at seeing FBN up close. We’re not going to get a second chance to make a national first impression. I want it to be a good one.
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