Neil Cavuto: Moderating Master

Republican Presidential debate moderator Neil Cavuto talks about his thorough debate preparation, avoiding "gotcha" questions and Governor Christie's "relentless" campaign strategy.

Republican presidential debate moderator Neil Cavuto.
Republican presidential debate moderator Neil Cavuto.
Photo courtesy of Fox Business Network.

Moderating a Presidential debate is no small task. Managing a menagerie of personalities, asking substantial questions and keeping a keen eye on the clock are all crucial. One New Jersey resident has proven to be up for the task. Mendham resident Neil Cavuto moderated the first Republican Presidential Debate of 2016; he moderated the most recent debate in November. Cavuto has been with Fox Business since its inception in 2007, and with Fox News since its founding in 1996. We spoke with Cavuto about not making himself part of the story, what makes each candidate uniquely American and avoiding the dreaded “gotcha” question.

New Jersey Monthly: What sparked your interest in politics?
Neil Cavuto: I don’t know, I guess I was always a nerd. My mom tells stories of how I was glued to the TV during the 1968 Democratic Convention, maybe because it was so acrimonious and loud! Who knows, all I know is that I got the bug quite early.

NJM: Describe the feeling of moderating your first Presidential debate.
NC: It’s a real honor, and the responsibility that comes with it isn’t lost on me or my colleagues. We all share a healthy respect for the process and the history. We know full well we are part of history, albeit a small part. Our job is to stimulate the debate, but not make ourselves the story in the debate. It’s about the candidates and our questions to them. That’s it. Nothing more. We’re a whole lot less!

NJM: What type of preparation goes into moderating a debate of this caliber?
Read, read, read, and then when in doubt, read some more. Follow every candidate, every quote, every statement, every position – those that have evolved and those that have changed dramatically. Point it out, be clear, be fair. Know what you’re talking about and ask only what you know. Don’t veer off into the silly, stick to what matters. The audience expects that. The candidates deserve that. And for me, that’s pretty much all that.

NJM: How will your approach for preparing for this debate differ from your approach to the debate in November?
The difference this time is that the debate isn’t entirely about business issues – it’s open-ended, whatever is happening out there, from terror and national security, to, yes, these crazy markets and whether China’s implosion represents more than just an economic threat. There’s also gun control and crime – all are fair game here.

NJM: Is there a candidate you most identify with?
At the risk of sounding a bit Yankee Doodle Dandy, all the candidates bring something uniquely American to the table. Regardless of your political point of you, there’s something remarkable about the emergence of a Marco Rubio, the son of Cuban immigrants seeking asylum in this country and a Ted Cruz and his own family’s rag-to-riches story. Then there’s Donald Trump and his shattering the conventional political mold and proving much more than a fleeting outside-the-box fancy. If you think about it, outside or certainly outside-the-mainstream candidates in the Republican party account for nearly three-out-of-four polled support. I include in that group Trump, and Cruz, and even Ben Carson. There’s no shortage of diversity – economic and otherwise in this bunch!

NJM: Is there an internal sense at FOX of who will get the nomination?

NJM: Gov. Chris Christie appears to be on the rise. As a New Jersey resident, do you think his time as governor will help or hurt him in the race?
Way too early to tell, but the one thing I’ll say about Gov. Christie is that he is relentless, he campaigned the exact same no-holds barred way when he was running for Governor against equally daunting odds. He won then, let’s just say I wouldn’t cavalierly dismiss him now.

NJM: Certain candidates seem to receive more media attention than others. How will you accommodate candidates who have not had as much face-time with voters?
I know we try very hard to be fair to all and provide the same debate time, or as close as we can, for all. Some candidates just engender more controversy and give-and-take than others. That’s the nature of the beast, I guess. Donald Trump will say something that infuriates another candidate, then that candidate responds, then Trump responds to that response. I know the drill. We all do. We just try very hard to keep all the candidates in line, and make sure those candidates who don’t trigger quite the heated response (Ben Carson comes to mind), get their say. It can’t be exact, but it’s like I try to be with my two sons – fair and equitable as is humanly possible.

NJM: CNBC was accused of using “gotcha” questions in the October debate. What’s the line between asking tough, fair questions and trying to “catch” candidates?
I don’t think that’s entirely fair. There were many good aspects of that debate. But again, it goes back to not only what you ask, but “how” you ask it. As I said, it’s not about us. It’s not about being cute, or “zingy.” It’s about being direct, and clear, and focused and armed with the facts and quotes to prove what you outlined. It might be dull, but to me, it works. Because the less the focus is on us, the better it is for the audience as a whole.

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