They’ve prepared for months, followed the candidates, winnowed questions and made all the preparations they can for Wednesday’s Republican presidential primary debate in Milwaukee.
But there’s one thing debate co-moderators and Fox News anchors Bret Baier and Martha MacCallum have no control over.
Will President Donald Trump participate?
Yet just because he may skip the debate, doesn’t mean that Trump as an issue can be avoided. He’s the frontrunner by a wide margin. And he faces four criminal cases.
“Donald Trump will be a part of this debate,” Baier said in an interview. “I mean, he’s leading in the polls by 10, 20 30, 40 points, depending on the poll, depending on the state. And, obviously, his legal issues are affecting this race. All these candidates have been asked non-stop about what’s happening in courtrooms around the country. So he’ll be a part of this debate whether he’s there or not.”
Does MacCallum think Trump will show up?
“I don’t know if he knows the answer to that question at this point,” she told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, part of the USA TODAY Network. “I think he’s leaning against it. But I also think that he always likes an opportunity to take the stage and to have the attention of the American voter and I think it’s a unique opportunity, especially given all the pressures that he’s under with all of these court dates, and, obviously, he has very strong feelings about that.
“And I think it is an opportunity that he doesn’t get that easily in other ways to be in the center and to address these issues head-on.”
With so much in flux, and so much at stake, there’ll be plenty of pressure to go around Wednesday. Not just for the candidates who will be on the stage at Fiserv Forum but for MacCallum and Baier. They’ll ask questions, direct traffic and likely set the pace for the first big candidate clash of the primary season, in the venue where the party will nominate its candidate at next summer’s Republican National Convention.
Fox News Channel will televise the two-hour debate that begins at 9 p.m. ET in Milwaukee.
“I think that the pressure that we feel is to make sure that we’re addressing the issues that are most important to people who are watching,” MacCallum said.
For MacCallum and Baier, the debate prep will likely go on right until showtime.
“As you may have noticed, there’s quite a bit going on,” she said.
They’ll have to cover a lot of ground in around 100 minutes of debate time. There’ll be no opening statements. Each candidate will get 45 seconds for a closing statement. There’ll be 60 seconds for answers to questions and 30 seconds for rebuttals.
There will be a timer clock and a bell will ring if a candidate has gone over time. The co-moderators will enforce all time limits.
Most of the questions will come from the co-moderators, while there will also be some video questions and visuals.
“We’re polishing down to diamonds of questions that prevent candidates to get to their off-ramps for talking points,” Baier said “So ideally, we’d like to get to the heart of issues, and to really have a conversation.”
The co-moderators will explore some key areas of contrast on the issues.
“I think that you’re hearing in other parts of the country, people who are very supportive of the effort in Ukraine and people who are starting to ask questions about it,” MacCallum said. “And there are going to be people on that stage who are on both sides of that issue.”
MacCallum added that when she talks to people around the country, as well as candidates, one concern that people have is “a question of American identity and who we are as a country and the division that really has happened over the last several years.”
Baier said “Republicans politically” have been vulnerable on abortion, “because they don’t speak from one voice and they haven’t really politically figured out how to effectively deal with that.”
Candidates will be placed on the stage according to their polling, with the highest polling candidate in the center. MacCallum and Baier said they’ll try to be “equitable” in time given the candidates.
Get on stage: Five ways the first GOP debate can boost or break the candidates
Eight candidates or their campaigns say they’ve qualified to make the debate stage. Besides Trump, they include Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, businessman Vivek Ramaswamy, former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, U.S. Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina, former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, former Vice President Mike Pence and North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum.
“We have built-in questions specifically to every candidate, and the interactions ideally we want to bring in a lot of candidates,” Baier said.
“I think there’s always an effort to make sure that we are evenhanded, that everybody is getting a fair number of questions,” MacCallum said.
Why it matters: The first GOP debate is being held in Milwaukee, Wisconsin
The co-moderators aim to keep the focus on the candidates, and not themselves. MacCallum said the public doesn’t want to see the anchors debate the candidates.
“They want to see the candidates debating each other,” she said.
Asked what would be the way to describe a good job by the co-moderators, Baier said: “Tough but fair, tough but fair.”
This article originally appeared on Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: Bret Baier, Martha MacCallum of Fox News plan for Trump, GOP debate