With a reduced candidate line-up and expanded online streaming access, Tuesday night's Republican presidential candidate debate from Milwaukee may look and feel different from the previous encounters, even though the quarreling sound bite will undoubtedly have a familiar ring.
Only eight candidates will be on the main stage at 9 p.m. ET, facing questions from Fox Business hosts Neil Cavuto and Maria Bartiromo plus Wall Street Journal editor-in-chief Gerard Baker. Four other candidates (with poll numbers under 2.5%) will debate at 7 p.m.
The Fox Business face-off comes two weeks after the much-criticized CNBC-hosted Republican debate. Tuesday's session will focus mainly on economic and business questions, although Bartiromo told Politico that some questions may veer into specific plans, such as a list of potential cabinet nominees.
The format will give moderators greater control, such as a buzzer to alert candidates when they reach the end of their allotted 90-second response time. That compares to 60 seconds and a flashing light used on CNBC. Candidates ignored the light. The network says it will keep "close track" of speaking times to allow equal opportunities to everyone. There will be no opening statements.
"We think it's really a great opportunity to showcase and differentiate Fox Business in terms of depth, quality and production," 21st Century Fox CEO James Murdoch said during the company's quarterly earnings call last week.
Fox will allow several other distributors to carry the debate, including DirectTV, Cable One and Wide Open West. Both segments of Tuesday's fourth Republican debate will be available via an online livestream at FoxBusiness.com.
Of the Republican debates so far, two have been limited to cable or satellite subscribers. Fox News and CNBC blocked non-subscribers for the events they carried. CNN, which has hosted one Democratic and one Republican debate, streamed both events.
In comments to Politico, Bartiromo said that after the CNBC telecast, "It was clearer than ever what my marching orders are, and that is to help the viewer, help the voter better understand what each candidate’s plan is; is it a realistic plan, can it work and how is it different from the next guy or gal, and that’s what I plan to focus on."
Bartiromo and Cavuto said they expect some candidates – especially ones lagging in the polls – to "resort to antics" to get attention.
"I don’t think you can be prepared for a comment that may come from one of the candidates that you weren’t expecting," Bartiromo said. "What you can prepare for is ensuring you know the issues, that you’ve got the right questions and you’ve got the right follow-up and you know exactly where they stand on the important issues."
Commercials and Ratings in Flux
The price for commercials during the debate is believed to be in the range of $200,000 per 30 seconds – comparable to what CNN charged for the Sept. 6 Republican debate. CNBC's rate for the Oct. 28 debate was reportedly $250,000 - up against a World Series game.
Ratings and audience size has drifted downwards since the series of televised debates began. The Aug. 6 Republican debate in Cleveland attracted 24 million viewers; the Sept. 16 Simi Valley session drew 23.1 million and the Oct. 28 debate had an audience of 14 million. On the Democratic side, the Oct. 13 debate attracted 15.8 million viewers, and the Nov. 6 "Forum" (with just 3 candidates in Rachel Maddow interviews on MSNBC) had 2.3 million viewers, which was slightly less than Fox's regular programming in that time slot.
Only eight candidates are on the 9 p.m. debate: Donald Trump, Dr. Ben Carson, Sen. Marco Rubio, Sen. Ted Cruz, former Gov. Jeb Bush, Carly Fiorina, Gov. John Kasich and Sen. Rand Paul. The 7 p.m. session will include Gov. Chris Christie, former Gov. Mike Huckabee, Gov. Bobby Jindal and former Sen. Rick Santorum. Three GOP contenders did not qualify for either debate for the first time this year: former Gov. George Pataki, Sen. Lindsey Graham and former Gov. James Gilmore.
Cavuto: Coast to Coast will air a special edition to review the debates right after the debate ends.
Meanwhile, there has been no follow up on a letter that Ben Ginsberg, a Republican attorney who has served as the pro bono debate negotiator for unhappy GOP candidates. Ginsberg was planning to send a letter of complaints, questions and requests to the TV networks last week. He did not respond to a call and email asking if his letter was actually dispatched or if he had any responses as of noon Tuesday.
Analysts are expected to scrutinize the session closely since both Cavuto and Bartiromo worked at CNBC before joining Fox Business; Fox News chairman/CEO Roger Ailes was once CNBC president.
With more than a month until the next Republican debate in Las Vegas on Dec. 15, Tuesday's session is considered a make-or-break event for some marginal candidates. The long gap and then the debate in the midst of the holiday season is expected to reduce attention to the verbal sparring. CNN and Salem Radio will co-host the Dec. 15 debate; Wolf Blitzer of CNN and Hugh Hewitt of the Salem Radio Network will moderate.