What to Expect From the Fox News Debate: "Obviously Anything Can Happen"

Fox News Debate Still 2 - H 2016
Courtesy of Fox News

Fox News Debate Still 2 - H 2016

"I think he's much more focused on securing the nomination now and not on me," Megyn Kelly has said about frontrunner Donald Trump.

Donald Trump's campaign has assured Fox News executives that this time he will be on the stage for the network's Republican debate Thursday night from Detroit.

"We've been told 100 percent that he will be there," Bret Baier tells The Hollywood Reporter. "Obviously anything can happen."

Trump pulled out of the network's Jan. 28 debate after reigniting his war with Baier's colleague Megyn Kelly. But until the afternoon of the debate, the candidate was privately waffling, so much so that the moderators were forced to draw up two sets of questions: one with Trump and one without him. But with Trump on his way to solidifying his grip on the Republican nomination — even as GOP veterans continue to question his appropriateness as the party's standard-bearer — the frontrunner's public posture is beginning to shift.

That was evident on Tuesday night in the stagecraft of his address after racking up wins in seven states on Super Tuesday. Instead of a victory speech in front of a large and raucous crowd, Trump held a press conference at his Mar-a-Lago Club in Palm Beach, Fla., from an intimate stage festooned with American flags. And in keeping with his status as a master media manipulator, before taking a handful of questions from the assembled media, Trump delivered a lengthy speech that helped him monopolize TV coverage just as pollsters were calling Texas for Ted Cruz.

"It was a different look," notes Baier. "It captured the attention [of the media] at a time when we were probably going to be focusing on Ted Cruz's win in Texas. And it changed the storyline. It changed the dynamic, and that's what [Trump] does best."

Restarting his attacks on Kelly, who once again will moderate the network's debate along with Baier and Chris Wallace, is hardly commander-in-chief behavior.

"I think he's much more focused on securing the nomination now and not on me, and that's how it should be," Kelly told the Associated Press.

That's not to say there won't be fireworks at the debate. The previous Republican face-off Feb. 25 on CNN was notable for its level of hostility, especially from Marco Rubio, who, after failing to win any states on Super Tuesday, is now fighting for survival.

"My reaction watching [the CNN] debate was that it was an embarrassment for the Republican Party," says Wallace. "If you saw someone acting like a president on that stage, you have better eyesight than I do."

The CNN debate, the first one to include Trump after he skipped the Fox News debate, was watched by 14.5 million viewers. Rubio subsequently unleashed a series of personal attacks on Trump on the trail, poking fun at the real estate mogul's "small hands" and "orange" skin. The moderators expect Rubio and Cruz to come loaded for bear to their debate, which will be the 11th in the GOP primary race. But they will attempt to steer the rhetoric toward the issues and away from ad hominem attacks.

"We've seen what's happened on the trail, and we saw the last debate. So we're ready for all of that," says Baier. "Our hope is that we're going to be able to hit a lot of topics that we haven't hit before and in a way that we haven't hit them before. And ideally the headline Friday is 'Fiery but Substantive Debate.'"

Wallace adds that once again they have video questions prepared for the candidates, though he declined to reveal on which issues. Fox News also will partner with Instagram for a behind-the-scenes look at the debate, which will air live at 9 a.m. from Detroit's Fox Theater. In addition to Trump, Cruz and Rubio, Ohio governor John Kasich also will be on the stage. But former neurosurgeon Ben Carson on Wednesday announced that he was dropping out of the race after a succession of disappointing finishes since voting began Feb. 1.

"There is still an active battle for the nomination," says Wallace. "A lot of voters haven't had the opportunity to weigh in, and we want to give them some information so they're able to decide who's the right person to be the Republican nominee."