The 17-member Republican presidential field trotted through a two-stage debate process Thursday night and by daybreak the consensus winner was – Fox News.
The conservative network often lampooned as one-sided and misleading had a good night in three respects. No. 1, audience. The telecast of the main debate drew 23.9 million viewers, Fox News’ highest-rated telecast ever. No. 2, credibility. The Fox News anchors who presided at the main debate – Chris Wallace, Megyn Kelly and Bret Baier — received strong reviews from media analysts for questions that were unpredictable, pointed and well-informed. No. 3, Jon Stewart, a liberal comic conscience who regularly skewered Fox News, hosted his last show Thursday night.
But the post-debate analysis – and that matters more than the debate – found other winners. One would be the GOP, which managed to get its farcical number of presidential candidates into a serious and coherent setting. The party also got relief from its bombastic frontrunner in the polls, Donald Trump. While Trump’s presence contributed to the strong viewership, he did not deliver the galvanizing performance many tuned in to witness. Rather the candidate who trades on his bluntness was miffed by the boldness of the Fox panel’s questions. Afterward, he told the press, “The questions to me were not nice.” Trump got thumped.
In the early forum for seven candidates who lacked the poll numbers to qualify for the main event, former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina got the best reviews for her poise and focus. In the main event, Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida was praised for the same qualities. Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker escaped without doing anything wrong. And Ohio Gov. John Kasich, who is little known outside Ohio but whose moderate views may make him the most electable of the field, also made headway by showing comfort and competence under the bright lights.