Fox Moderators Force GOP Presidential Candidates to Play Defense in First Debate

Republicans recoiled against the media's aggressive questioning of their presidential candidates in 2012. But Fox News's moderators didn't back off Thursday night.

FOX News anchors Chris Wallace, Megan Kelly and Bret Baier moderate the first prime-time Republican presidential debate hosted at the Quicken Loans Arena August 6, 2015 in Cleveland, Ohio. (National Journal)

In a sea of men, two women stood out during Thursday night's Republican presidential debates: Carly Fiorina, who dominated the undercard, and Megyn Kelly, who charged hard after Donald Trump in the main event.

If Republicans thought that Fox News would go easy on the GOP contenders, Kelly and her colleagues Chris Wallace and Bret Baier clearly had other things in mind. They were aggressive from the get-go, consistently asking pointed questions of all 10 candidates on stage, especially — though not only — Trump.

They pushed Trump on disparaging comments he's made about women, his past support for a single-payer health care system, his donations to Democrats and the Clinton Foundation, and his business dealings. One of the more contentious moments came when Kelly bluntly asked Trump: "When did you actually become a Republican?"

Trump, perhaps slightly exasperated, told the crowd: "I don't think they like me very much."

Clearly, the questioning got to him. Trump complained about Kelly specifically to reporters after the debate. "I think the questions were not nice. They were inappropriate," Trump said. "I think Megyn behaved very badly."

While Trump may have gotten the toughest treatment of the night, his rivals still felt the heat from the moderators throughout the debate. The trio pressed just about every candidate about a weak spot on his resume. Wallace asked Scott Walker why he changed his positions on immigration, Baier challenged Jeb Bush's stance on the Common Core education standards, and Kelly questioned Ben Carson's credentials for office.

The moderators' style largely drew praise from fellow members of the media. "So far the clear winners are Megyn Kelly Bret Baier and Chris Wallace for their q's," MSNBC's Andrea Mitchell tweeted early on in the debate.

But several conservative observers had their qualms. Some wanted the moderators to ask more questions about the Democratic front-runner, Hillary Clinton, and the hot-button issue of the day, Planned Parenthood. Conservative radio host Hugh Hewitt, who will be asking questions of the Republican candidates during the next debate in September, criticized the way many of the questions were framed, saying that some were not relevant to GOP primary voters.

"The questions are really tiresome in their frenetic pace and randomness, Hewitt tweeted about halfway through the debate. He said earlier on: "Let's just say this is not the sort of questions I have in mind."

Still, the criticisms from Hewitt and others are nowhere near the level of complaints some conservatives had during the 2012 debates.

One moment that stands out to conservatives from the 2012 primary was when ABC News's George Stephanopoulos asked Mitt Romney whether states have the right to ban contraceptives, and proceeded to press him on the topic for roughly three minutes. Conservatives thought the question was irrelevant, an attempt to lure the Romney into a "gotcha" moment. "The question just came out of the blue," said Glenn McCall, a Republican National Committee member from South Carolina. "That was not a topic that was being discussed."

Since then, Republican leaders worked to ensure conservative voices had a greater role in the debate process. For instance, Fox News is hosting a greater share of the debates than the last campaign. In 2012, Fox News hosted four of the 20 GOP primary debates; in 2016, they are hosting three of the 11 that have been announced so far. And the Fox Business Network, which wasn't involved with any debates four years ago, is partnering with The Wall Street Journal for a debate in November.

And conservative outlets will be involved in the debates other outlets are hosting. The conservative website IJReview is partnering with ABC, National Review will team up with NBC, and CNN has joined forces with the Salem Media Group, which produces Christian and conservative radio shows. Hewitt will be a member of the panel for the GOP debate next month in California.

And as for Stephanopoulos? He will not moderate ABC News's GOP primary debate next February.

"There was an intense grassroots recoiling from the way some of the moderators handled the debates," said Ari Fleischer, a former White House press secretary for George W. Bush who coauthored a post-2012 election autopsy report for the Republican National Committee. "And it's what led to our conclusion that these debates are for the purpose of Republican primary voters deciding who they would support, and the questions should reflect the thinking of the people who will participate in the political process, not people who, frankly, we thought had an agenda against Republicans, particularly conservative Republicans."