GOP Debate Moderator Maria Bartiromo: Candidates ‘Need to Grow Up’

“I don’t think that there are any questions that are inappropriate,” debate moderator tells TheWrap

Maria Bartiromo
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Moderator Maria Bartiromo has a warning for the candidates in tonight’s Republican presidential debate: Don’t expect softball questions.

“All candidates, Democrats and Republicans, need to grow up and not think that anybody will be handling them with kid gloves,” Bartiromo, one of the debate’s moderators, told TheWrap. “We’re all looking for the next leader of the free world. I don’t think that there are any questions that are inappropriate.”

Much has changed since the Fox Business Network’s Bartiromo moderated the GOP debate in November. The Paris and San Bernadino attacks have shifted the national conversation, more candidates have dropped out, and Ted Cruz is challenging Donald Trump for the frontrunner spot while fielding questions about his eligibility to be commander-in-chief.

Bartiromo talked to TheWrap about what to expect, how she’ll handle Trump, and whether or not CNBC, her former network, dropped the ball during its debate in October.

TheWrap: How will this debate be different than the last one you moderated?
Bartiromo: It’s a really important debate because it’s two days after the State of the Union address, you’re two weeks away from Iowa and, for the first time, you’re seeing voters really start to peel back the onion and understand better each of these candidates’ proposals. I think it’s a really important moment ahead of what’s going to be an exciting election year.

The landscape has shifted dramatically in the last two months.
This is going to be the first time you hear the candidates react to what the president said at the State of the Union. So, right off the bat, that makes a difference. Secondly, you’re talking about other stories that have occurred: increase in crime, increase in shooting. Also, look at where we are. We have just begun a new year with the worse stock market performance ever. Investors are really nervous right now. Not to mention, we’re only two weeks away from the most important primary in Iowa and three weeks away from New Hampshire.

The narrative among Republican candidates has been that the economy is tanking. But just this week we got news of better-than-expected 292,000 new jobs created in December. Where’s the disconnect?
Certainly when you look at the job numbers we’re finally seeing an improvement. We’re talking around 200,000 jobs created every month. The problem is that eight years after the financial crisis we actually should be a lot further along than where we are. And unfortunately, now you’ve got many people predicting a recession in 2016. So while we are seeing an improvement, often times it doesn’t tell the whole story.

It seems that Donald Trump is going after Megyn Kelly again. Any worries there? Are you prepared for a possible Trump attack?
I don’t think you can really prepare for that unknown bombastic comment. I’m not going to prepare one-liners to respond to any unexpected issue. What I am going to do is make sure I know my facts and my story cold.

Do you think Megan Kelly was right to ask Trump if he has issues with women? Was it a legitimate question? 
I think Megyn Kelly did a superb job. After the exchange Fox News and [Fox News chairman and CEO] Roger Ailes stuck by her and made sure that the world knew that the network supports her, and so do I. I’m very comfortable with the question. I do not think it was inappropriate at all. I think at this point in the cycle all candidates need to expect all questions. This is no dress rehearsal. We’re all looking for the next leader of the free world.

CNBC, your former network, came under heavy fire from candidates and journalists about the way it handled its debate. Do you think any questions were inappropriate?
Candidates should be ready for whatever comes their way because when you’re sitting in the Oval Office anything can come your way. But I don’t think it’s necessary to be snarky or to be “gotcha.” It’s about getting to the issues that Americans care about.

Does that mean you think some of the questions during the CNBC debate were snarky or “gotcha?”
Yeah. I think there was a bit of a tone that indicated that. But I’m not here to criticize my former colleagues. I grew up at CNBC. I have respect for my former colleagues. I wish them well.

The Ted Cruz birther issue has become a hot topic in recent days. Will that come up?
I think when there’s an elephant in the room you discuss it. This is an opportunity to understand whether or not this person has leadership qualities that are required. As far as the issue itself, I’m not sure about the validity of it. But certainly it’s not a question I’m afraid to ask.

Rand Paul and Carly Fiorina didn’t make the cut for the main debate this time. Is that good or bad? 
I think it’s better to have fewer candidates and more time to talk the issues through. That said, I think that Rand Paul has been very articulate, very smart about the issues that the country faces.

What do you make of his announcement to boycott the debate unless he’s allowed back on the main stage?
Frankly, I think it’s a huge missed opportunity. I hope he reconsiders. I think he probably will. I can’t even imagine that he would give up an opportunity to speak to the American people in a national debate two days after the State of the Union.

Ratings for the debates, especially on the GOP side, have been through the roof. How much of that do you attribute to Trump?
The last Fox Business Network debate had 13.5 million people watching. It was a great boom to our network. I do think it’s partly because of Donald Trump. Just his presence at this election has already been very valuable. He has created excitement that we haven’t seen in a long time. I much prefer having people talking about the issues than the alternative.

The undercard debate airs today at 3 p.m. PT/6 p.m. ET. The main debate begins at 6 p.m. PT/9 p.m. EST. Both air on Fox Business Network.