Tuned In

The Morning After: Fox Shows Teeth in Debate

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Eight Republican presidential candidates debated on Fox News from Ames, Iowa, in advance of its straw poll this weekend. My colleague Michael Scherer liveblogged it at Swampland, and I’ll let you pick the winner: was it Mitt Romney, for not doing anything to jeopardize his frontrunner status? Michele Bachmann, for slapping down an attack on her credentials by Tim Pawlenty? Rick Perry, for looming over the festivities without even showing up?

But the horse race aside, I’ll call the round for Fox. If anyone suspected that the conservative-friendly network would spend the evening lobbing up softballs to the home team, they were mistaken; the panel of Bret Baier, Chris Wallace and guest Byron York spent two hours asking pointed questions, keeping a tight watch on the clock and occasionally getting under the candidates’ skin.

Like many debate moderators, the panel sought to strike sparks off the candidates and get them to spar with each other, but the GOP eight—beginning to come in sight of the actual voting process—were already happy to oblige and try to distinguish themselves. But to their credit, the Fox moderators generally avoided stunt questions or goading, instead sticking sharply to specific issue-based questions and trying to get the candidates on record on difficult issues.

The panel was asked, for instance, to raise their hands if they would refuse a budget deal that traded 10 dollars in budget cuts for every one dollar in revenue increases (every candidate’s hand went up). York asked Bachmann about her statement that she had made a career decision on her husband’s request because the Bible says wives should be “submissive” (the crowd booed York for using Bachmann’s own words). And at one point we saw the awkward spectacle of former Fox contributor Newt Gingrich going on the attack against… Fox, or at least against the “gotcha” questions of Wallace, fixing the moderator with a peeved stare.

Gotcha’s in the eye of the beholder, but at a minimum the debate far outclassed the previous CNN-hosted debate, with its inane “This or That” round asking the candidates to choose between Coke and Pepsi or whatnot. (I very much look forward to the “Boff, Marry, Kill” round in CNN’s next presidential debate.) Fox assumed, rightly, that its audience tuned in to watch a 2012 Presidential debate in August 2011, and thus was interested enough not to need things jazzed up for them.

That said, I wouldn’t have objected to Sarah Palin’s driving her tour bus on stage for a surprise appearance at the end. For that, it seems, we’ll have to wait a day or two. How would you rate the debate?