There were mixed reviews of the candidates on Thursday night, but almost unanimously positive reviews of the Fox News moderators.
“Tough.” “Brilliant.” “Pitbulls.” The raves for Fox’s questioning started right away and continued well into the evening, even from rivals and critics who rarely praise the cable news channel.
Austan Goolsbee, a former member of President Obama’s cabinet, gave Fox credit this way: “If they were treating the Dems like this, I would have said they were gratuitously busting their chops,” he tweeted.
Yochi Dreazen, managing editor of Foreign Policy magazine, said some of the candidates looked “shell-shocked” by tough questions from Fox, a channel defined by its conservative political and cultural tilt.
That’s what public radio host Kai Ryssdal meant when he wrote, “have to hand it to Fox News moderators for going after their guys.”
Fox News chairman Roger Ailes and his lieutenants have been at the center of the presidential race for weeks thanks to Thursday’s debate and the controversial entry criteria for it. Only the “top ten” candidates, as determined by the polls, were invited to the prime time event.
The drama reinforced the image of Ailes as a Republican kingmaker of sorts. He had a unique perspective on Thursday’s proceedings — because, years before he created Fox News, he coached Republican presidential candidates like Ronald Reagan for debates.
Halfway through the debate, BuzzFeed editor-in-chief Ben Smith said Ailes is “clearly the winner of this. This is really good TV.”
Among the three moderators, Ailes’ hand-picked 9 p.m. anchor Megyn Kelly, a former litigator, seemed to stand out the most.
In her opening question to Ben Carson, Kelly questioned the former neurosurgeon’s readiness to be president, citing his previous unawareness of governmental affairs.
Later, she went through a list of pro-Democratic positions Donald Trump once claimed and asked him, “When did you actually become a Republican?” The question prompted a mix of cheers and laughter from the crowd.
Some of the most pointed questions from the moderators were posed to Trump. When Kelly pressed him on his history of disparaging remarks about women, Trump claimed he had only spoken ill of his longtime adversary, Rosie O’Donnell.
“For the record, it was well beyond Rosie O’Donnell,” Kelly said.
“Honestly, Megyn, if you don’t like it, I’m sorry,” Trump told the anchor. “I’ve been very nice to you, although I could probably not be based on the way you have treated me. But I wouldn’t do that.”
The other moderators also challenged the real estate mogul. After Trump gave a meandering defense of his controversial remarks about illegal immigration, Wallace put the billionaire on the spot.
“Mr. Trump, I’ll give you 30 seconds to answer my question, which was: What evidence do you have, specific evidence, that the Mexican government is sending criminals across the border?” Wallace asked.
Former MSNBC host Abby Huntsman, a daughter of the 2012 Republican presidential candidate Jon Huntsman, tweeted that Kelly “is pretty darn bad ass.”
Kelly’s counterparts Bret Baier and Chris Wallace also earned applause.
Journalist Glenn Greenwald, a fierce critic of the mainstream media, tweeted: “Credit where due: these questions from the Fox moderators are almost all quite good.”
Ellen Weiss, the Washington bureau chief for Scripps News, sent “kudos” to Fox for “asking each candidate tough questions on their weak spots.”
Rupert Murdoch, the patriarch of a sprawling media empire that includes Fox News, was equally effusive in his praise.
“What a fantastic night for USA, democracy, freedom and incidentally Fox News,” he tweeted. “Congratulations to all.”
There were some jokes at Fox’s expense for technical difficulties and awkward banter in the minutes right before the two hour debate began at 9 p.m.
And there were complaints about a relative lack of follow-up questions and the minimal amount of time devoted to questions about race relations.
Before the debate got underway, observers were predicting unusually high ratings for the event, thanks to curiosity about Trump and the controversy over the “top ten” criteria.
The TV ratings results won’t be available until Friday, but on the Internet there was an instant indication of widespread interest: trouble with Fox’s web stream.
Fox made the debate available online to cable and satellite subscribers, but many users on Twitter said they had a tough time accessing it.
A Fox spokeswoman confirmed the problems and said “an unprecedented, overwhelming demand caused server issues in the debate live stream.”
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