NEW YORK (AP) — Fox News Channel has emerged a winner of this raucous and impactful debate season with its sharp, detailed questioning of the candidates, not allowing itself to be distracted by the Megyn Kelly-Donald Trump feud or the candidates' increased vitriol.
More than civic exercises, the debates are television entertainment spectacles that have forced moderators to become referees as much as interrogators. After the first GOP match last summer on Fox drew 24 million viewers, the audience for only one of the 10 to follow has dipped below 12 million — on par with the top prime-time entertainment series. Thursday's debate averaged just under 17 million viewers.
Fox has used the same moderating team of Kelly, Bret Baier and Chris Wallace for all three of its debates. The network set a tough tone at the start last summer with the question from Kelly that set Trump off, confronting him about prior comments about women. Right away it dispelled the notion that the network most popular with Republicans would go easy on its candidates.
"Fox has been both fair and reasonable in their questions," said Todd Graham, director of debate at Southern Illinois University, who has written about the primary debates. "They have been tough on the Republicans but they have not been unfair. They have been very good in their research."
Fox's use of prepared materials has stood out, he said. On Thursday, Kelly played tapes to illustrate three instances where Trump said one thing and later contradicted himself. "You change your tune on so many things, and that has some people saying, 'What is his core?'" she said.
While Kelly isn't running for president, "she seems to be the only person able to effectively land a blow on Trump, mostly because she uses his own words against him," Time magazine's Charlotte Alter wrote.
Tweeted comic John Hodgman: "Megyn Kelly is serving revenge cold."
The extent of Fox's homework became clear when Marco Rubio and Trump began arguing about a legal case involving the Trump University educational venture. Kelly stepped in with quotes from a judicial ruling. An exasperated Trump said, "Give me a break," when Kelly read a harsh passage.
A Wallace question played out like a cleanly laid trap. After he asked for specific deficit-cutting proposals, Trump mentioned the federal education and environmental conservation departments — and Wallace had statistics ready that showed how those agencies accounted for only a small part of the federal budget.
"Mr. Trump, your numbers don't add up," Wallace said.
It was in contrast to the CNBC debate last fall, when Becky Quick couldn't back up a question when Trump challenged her premise. During a commercial break, she found what she was looking for on Trump's website.
Fox wasn't just tough on Trump. Kelly said primary results poked a hole in Ted Cruz's claim to represent true conservatives. "Hasn't your brand of conservatism been rejected by an electorate that appears to be more taken with Mr. Trump's populist message?" she asked.
Later she couldn't resist — and perhaps should have — a dig at Cruz that he couldn't be "trusted" because of a policy flip-flop. That was a play on Cruz's "Trust Ted" campaign slogan.
Besides that moment, the moderators were firm but respectful. Again, CNBC showed the wrong tone, when moderator John Harwood asked Trump if he was running "a comic-book version of a presidential campaign."
"I think Fox may have surprised some of the skeptics and some of the quote-unquote mainstream media," said Frank Sesno, a former CNN Washington bureau chief and a professor at George Washington University. "They came out very tough, very prepared and asked challenging questions. I think the Fox debates have been some of the best."
The high stakes are clear to the candidates. Many analysts traced poor performances by Rubio and Chris Christie in the New Hampshire primary to their unseemly exchange in the debate just prior, and Iowa voters punished Trump for skipping the second Fox debate.
That's made the debates more contentious, and it has increased pressure on moderators who need to walk the fine line of letting candidates go after each other without losing control. Kelly lectured Rubio that he couldn't be heard when he and Trump talked over each other. When another exchange devolved into "big Donald" and "little Marco" schoolyard taunts, Wallace said: "You have got to do better than this."
Baier wrapped things by making news, asking the candidates if they would commit publicly to supporting the GOP nominee if it wasn't them. It forced them to prove they were loyal Republicans — perhaps undermining the harsh criticism they had thrown at their opponents for two hours.
The debut of Netflix's Washington drama "House of Cards" Friday is no match for the real thing.
Follow David Bauder at twitter.com/dbauder. His work can be found at http://bigstory.ap.org/content/david-bauder