What a strange trip it’s been already as we head into the fourth set of GOP primary debates Tuesday: a wounded pool of GOP candidates railing against a list of perceived injustices that include “gotcha” questions, too-short response times, too-long debates; a contentious, unwieldy CNBC debate that led to the RNC cutting NBC News and Telemundo out of their role as co-hosts of a future debate.
Before the first question has even been asked, it is all but assured Fox Business Network’s debate won’t resemble the three that came before it. For one, the undercard debate, which will be hosted by FBN’s Trish Regan and Sandra Smith, along with Wall Street Journal’s Washington Bureau chief Gerald Seib, is losing two of its standbys, George Pataki and Lindsey Graham, who were not eligible for either debate this time around based on polling. It also adds former primtetime debaters Chris Christie and Mike Huckabee, giving this undercard a different energy from its predecessors.
How does host Trish Regan plan to deal with a possibly antagonistic slate of debaters? “We have a bell. That could come in handy,” she tells FishbowlDC, laughing. But really, Regan feels the expanded time debaters have for their answers and follow-ups will give them a forum in which they feel heard. “We’re giving them a minute and a half to answer a question, and then we’re following up with a 60-second response,” she says. “Our goal is to really create an opportunity for them to explain what they’re talking about, and for them to explain the policies that they think can lead us forward.”
“This is going to be a substantive debate,” Regan promises. “Voters are hungry for a real dialogue, and our goal is to make sure that they get that.”
We spoke with Regan just before the final details of the debate had been announced to find out how she’s preparing, who she thinks should be responsible for setting the terms of the debate and what topics are on the table this time around.
FishbowlDC: How are you preparing for the debate?
Trish Regan: I’m doing a lot of reading. I have got many binders filled with research. I have spent every night and every weekend for the last several weeks pouring through this. I think my little kids will be really happy when Wednesday comes. It’s been very intense, one of the most intense things I’ve ever done in my career. It’s one thing to prepare for an interview; it’s another thing to prepare for all of these candidates. Regardless of which debate you’re moderating, the first or the second one, you need to have a fluency, an understanding of each of the policies from every candidate.
FishbowlDC: How cemented or not do you feel are the fates of the candidates at this point? Do you think a breakout moment is still possible for an undercard candidate?
Regan: It is still very early in this election cycle. Keep in mind you’ve seen these candidates trade spots back and forth and we’ve seen this historically throughout other elections as well. We have seen throughout this process that a lot of candidates have moved up in the minds of American voters, so I think at this stage it’s actually impossible to predict who’s going to break out next, but the great thing about these debates and the debate on Tuesday is it serves as a platform to provide these candidates with that opportunity—to break out.
FishbowlDC: What are you looking to bring out of the candidates?
Regan: I care about jobs, the economy. We care about the size of government, we care about taxes. There’s a lot at stake right now in terms of our fiscal future, in terms of our children’s fiscal future, and these are issues that the American public cares about, that I care about, and I am honored, absolutely thrilled to be playing a role in making sure that these topics are discussed and that we have a substantive conversation about the economic future of this country.
FishbowlDC: Are there topics that you are looking to avoid completely?
Regan: No. The debate is very much based on the news cycle. So there’s nothing that’s necessarily off the table.
FishbowlDC: Who ultimately should be responsible for setting the rules for the debates?
Regan: I’m a purist, and as a purist, I believe that a journalist needs to be able to ask the questions that he or she feels are important and relevant and critical to understanding the policies that these candidates are presenting. We need to be able to do this without constraints from others. It’s a network’s responsibility to ensure an impartial and fair debate. It’s a journalist’s responsibility to do the same. That’s the bottom line.
FishbowlDC: This undercard debate marks the first time in a debate this cycle that the two network reps are women, and the hosting panel is majority female. What effect will this have on the debate?
Regan: Women in general, I would say, have a very keen interest in the economy, and I say this because I think a lot of women effectively act as the CFOs of their families. They’re doing a lot of the balancing of the checkbooks, they’re doing a lot of the grocery shopping, they’re paying the bills. As such, I think women really care and want to know about the direction of our economy.
It’s tremendous that we have two women on stage. We have tremendous women here at Fox Business, women who are incredibly fluent in the study of the economy and their knowledge of the economy and so, it really speaks to how strong we are, how strong the women are at our network that two of us are on stage there on Tuesday night.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.