WASHINGTON – Who won the great debate?
According to the mainstream media, the winner was … Fox News.
According to Rush Limbaugh, the loser was … Fox News.
At least, in the sense that the network may have blown its credibility with conservatives.
And Limbaugh said he saw it coming.
“Everybody should have known this was gonna happen,” he said. “This is presidential politics, and Republican candidates are where media people score their points. It’s where they build their careers. It’s where they establish their credentials.”
The conservative talk-radio giant saw another motivation for the moderators’ attack-dog tactics.
He said GOP bigwigs ordered Fox to take out Trump.
On Friday, Limbaugh began by telling listeners how, on the day of Thursday’s debate, he had learned “that big-time Republican donors had ordered to take out Donald Trump in the debate last night.”
“We all made a mistake,” he explained. “We assumed that the orders went out to the candidates. But the candidates did not make one move toward taking Donald Trump out. The broadcast network did; the candidates didn’t.”
Rush said it was clear that Fox News had it out for Trump when his colleagues refused to pile on, even when given multiple opportunities to bash the front-runner.
“Not one of the remaining nine candidates joined Megyn Kelly in taking the shot at Trump. Not one. Yet we have been told that there were orders from Republican donors to take Trump out.”
If, in addition to targeting Trump, Fox News was indeed looking to get some love and respect from the left and the establishment media with its relentless attacks on Republican candidates in the Thursday night’s debate, it’s mission was accomplished.
The media and much of the rest of the left raved about the performance of Fox moderators Bret Baier, Megyn Kelly and Chris Wallace.
- Washington Post: Columnist Richard Cohen declared, “The only winner I feel confident in naming is Fox News. Political analyst Chris Cillizza declared Fox a winner, calling the moderators “outstanding.” Aaron Blake praised Fox’s “tough” questions and chided conservatives for being mad at Fox, saying “they shouldn’t be.”
- New York Times: Op-ed columnist Frank Bruni gushed, “It was riveting. It was admirable. It compels me to write a cluster of words I never imagined writing: hooray for Fox News.” And, “This was an inquisition. On this night, the network that pampers Republicans provoked them instead. It was great television, and even better politics.”
- MSNBC: Andrea Mitchell tweeted, “So far the clear winners are Megyn Kelly, Bret Baier and Chris Wallace for their q’s.” Former MSNBC host Abby Huntsman tweeted that Kelly “is pretty darn bad a–.”
- CNN: Brian Stelter cited the “almost unanimously positive reviews” of Fox’s “tough debate questions” by both the media and liberal commentators.
- BuzzFeed: Editor in chief Ben Smith called Fox News chief Roger Ailes “clearly the winner of this. This is really good TV.”
- Glenn Greenwald: The liberal journalist tweeted: “Credit where due: these questions from the Fox moderators are almost all quite good.”
- Scripps News: Washington Bureau Chief Ellen Weiss gave “kudos” to Fox for “asking each candidate tough questions on their weak spots.”
- Foreign Policy Magazine: managing editor Yochi Dreazen said tough Fox questions left some candidates looking “shell-shocked.”
- American Public Media: Public radio host Kai Ryssdal wrote, “have to hand it to Fox News moderators for going after their guys.” He tweeted, “@msnbc anchors would not have been – and will not be – as tough on Dems as @FoxNews was on GOP tonight.”
- Fox: Even the host network declared itself the winner, with patriarch Rupert Murdoch tweeting, “What a fantastic night for USA, democracy, freedom and incidentally Fox News.”
Fox’s focus on itself as the key player in the debates may have been evidenced by the fact that the moderators dominated the on-air time, speaking for 31.7 percent of the two-hour event.
That was far more time than any one candidate received. The average was approximately seven minutes per candidate. Trump, under constant fire from Fox moderators, got the most time at almost 11 minutes.
Why the Fox fixation on itself?
Jeremy Peters of the New York Times offered the theory that Fox saw it as a chance to gain respect and recognition from its leftist peers in the media, although he put it in terms that sympathized with that ambition
“For the journalists of Fox News, the debate offered a potentially defining moment in front of millions of people, during one of the most anticipated political events of the year,” he wrote.
“This was an opportunity to demonstrate that their network is not, as its critics have charged, a blindly loyal propaganda division of the Republican Party, that Fox journalists can be as unsparing toward conservatives as they are with liberals, and that they can eviscerate with equal opportunity if they choose.”
But many conservatives were livid with Fox over the moderators’ incessant attacks on the 10 GOP presidential candidates.
A caller on Friday told Limbaugh, “I thought I was watching MSNBC. The moderators methodically torpedo each candidate, with Donald Trump being the biggest target.
“And the worst was Megyn Kelly, who you just referenced, who thinks she’s all that and just too cute, asked that ridiculous name-calling question and referenced the nonexistent war on women.”
That’s when Limbaugh agreed, saying, “Everybody should have known this was gonna happen. This is presidential politics, and Republican candidates are where media people score their points. It’s where they build their careers. It’s where they establish their credentials.”
In an article headlined, “Conservatives are mad at Fox News and Megyn Kelly. They shouldn’t be,” the Washington Post compiled a few tweets representing the conservative fury at Fox across the nation, writing, “This kind of stuff was all over social media Friday morning.”
As for which candidate actually won the debate, reactions were all over the map.
Opinion appeared evenly divided on whether Trump helped or hurt himself.
But, according to the Drudge Report poll, as of early Friday evening, he was the landslide winner.
The clear losers? GOP establishment favorites Bush and Christie.
- Trump: 44.67 percent (258,414 votes)
- Cruz: 14.37 percent (83,159 votes)
- Rubio: 10.46 percent (60,497 votes)
- Carson: 8.92 percent (51,617 votes)
- Paul: 6.09 percent (35,213 votes)
- Kasich: 5.25 percent (30,396 votes)
- Walker: 3.51 percent (20,318 votes)
- Huckabee: 3.37 percent (19,512 votes)
- Bush: 2.07 percent (11,987 votes)
- Christie: 1.28 percent (7,401 votes)
Many pundits agreed that Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas; Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla.; Gov. John Kasich, R-Ohio; and retired neurosurgeon Dr. Ben Carson all performed well and boosted their fortunes.
Fox limited the participants to the top 10 in an average of five national polls as of Tuesday.
Making the cut were Trump (23.4 percent), former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush (12.0 percent), Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (10.2 percent), former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee (6.6 percent), Carson (5.8 percent), Cruz (5.4 percent), Rubio (5.4 percent), Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul (4.8 percent), New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (3.4 percent) and Kasich (3.2 percent).
Fox News certainly was an indisputable winner in one important respect: ratings.
With 24 million people watching, the prime-time debate from Cleveland became the highest-rated cable news program of all time, and Fox News’ most-watched program ever.
So who actually won?
The only debater declared the clear winner by virtually unanimous acclaim was not even on the prime-time stage: Carly Fiorina.
She appeared in the 5 p.m. ET debate for the seven GOP candidates who did not make the top 10 roster for the prime-time debate.
But her fortunes looked a lot brighter Friday, as the rave reviews poured in immediately following, and even during, her bravura performance.
- The Washington Post said Carly won “by a lot.”
- Karl Rove said: “Carly Fiorina walked in tonight, owned the stage, owned it big.”
- Nate Silver of 538 said Carly was “crushing it.”
- National Review reported: “Left, Right, and Center Agree: Carly Crushed It.”
- In an article titled, “Carly Fiorina won the happy hour debate. By a lot,” the Washington Post’s Chris Cillizza gushed over her “poised and confident” answers.” He added, “What made Fiorina stand out – more than what she said on any particular topic – was that she looked up to the moment. She was prepared and poised. She rarely glanced at notes. She spoke freely and easily. She had the ‘it’ factor.”
- Immediately following the debate, Fox News political analyst Chris Wallace observed, “I’d have to say I was most impressed with Carly Fiorina. I think she just stood above the other six people on the stage. She was sharp on national security. She was, not surprisingly for a former CEO, sharp on domestic policy and budget, money issues. I just think there’s kind of a sharpness and intelligence about her and a precision [in] her message that really cuts through. I was frankly a little surprised that she didn’t make the top 10.” He said he believed the former Hewlett-Packard CEO’s performance could help propel her into the top-tier candidates.
- Fox News political analyst George Will said, “I agree with Chris. Carly Fiorina stood out for the precision, fluency and the way she managed to pack a lot into one minute or into 30 seconds.”
- And yet another Fox News analyst, Brit Hume, declared, “We have a consensus winner: Carly Fiorina won this debate.”
Follow Garth Kant @DCgarth