A behind-the-scenes look at how Fox News’ Dana Perino is preparing to moderate the next GOP debate
In an exclusive interview with the Deseret News, Perino explains how she’s getting ready for Wednesday’s Republican presidential primary debate
In her decade-and-a-half in cable news, Dana Perino has seemingly done it all. She co-anchors Fox News’ morning show “America’s Newsroom” and prime-time show “The Five.” She launched a new podcast, “Perino on Politics,” this year. Ahead of the first GOP presidential debate, she sat as co-anchor for the preshow.
This week, Perino will do something she’s never done before: moderate a presidential debate.
Perino will be one of three co-moderators for the second Republican presidential debate in Simi Valley, California, on Wednesday. She’ll have the gargantuan task of preparing and asking candidates questions about the economy, foreign policy and other topics, while also trying to maintain control of the back-and-forth.
But, in a way, she’s already been on the other side, having worked as President George W. Bush’s press secretary before she was a Fox News host.
Her dogged preparation in all her roles stems back to her upbringing. She was born in Evanston, Wyoming, and grew up in a small town south of Denver, where her dad had her read two newspaper articles each day and discussed them at dinner. “It was brilliant training,” Perino said.
Perino talked to the Deseret News about her preparation for Wednesday’s debate and what viewers should expect. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Perino has prepared dozens of questions
Deseret News: We talk a lot about what candidates are doing to get ready for the debates. But could you tell me what debate prep is like for moderators?
Dana Perino: This is brand new for me. In a way, I feel like there’s a lot of things that I do in my life and in my career — my current job, and also my past job — that have helped me figure out what I might want to do as a moderator. For example, when I would brief President Bush for a press conference, I would anticipate the questions and help think about the best answer that would explain his decision making and the policy decisions that he made.
So what I did in this case was — I probably, frankly, went way too broad, initially — I had white canvas, and I just wrote every possible topic and every possible question that I could think of. And then from there, I’ve been narrowing it down. Sometimes it’s really hard to delete a question, but when I do the math — how much time the moderator actually has compared to the candidates — there’s not enough time for all of those questions. So right now I’m paring down and keeping a file of all the questions that I would have liked to have answered if I had more time, and maybe I can use those over the next several months as the primary rolls along.
Perino: No candidate has offered clear leadership yet
DN: Could you give us a preview of a question or a theme that might come up during the debate?
DP: One of the things I’ve been paying a lot of attention to on “America’s Newsroom” and “The Five,” and just in talking to people and observing their reactions to things, there’s a collective anxiety and worry that Americans have right now about the direction of the country, as well as our own personal finances and well-being. And I always describe it as a leader should relieve people of that anxiety. And I’m not sure if we’ve heard from the candidates yet on how they will do that. And I mean, all the candidates, from the president and vice president to former president Trump and the rest of them.
Now, they might disagree with me and say, Well, I have policies. But nobody has really had time to focus on all of those. That first debate was a great opportunity for all of the candidates to introduce themselves to the GOP primary voters. You and I pay a lot of attention to all of these issues day in and day out. Most people do not. And they have their lives that they’re leading. And out of that debate, you didn’t really have anyone with a big breakout moment.
So the second debate is super important for them, because they need to show that they can be the front-runners’ main rival — the front-runner being Donald Trump — who could emerge from this group as the main rival to him, who has a very commanding and enduring lead. So they need a breakout moment. And their supporters and donors will be looking for that as well.
Perino prepping questions ‘in case’ Trump decides to attend
DN: As far as we know, former President Trump won’t be participating in the debate. What would change if he were on that stage?
DP: Now, one of the things I have done is prepared questions in case he does decide, at the last minute, to come. That would mean he would need to sign the (Republican National Committee) pledge. Anyway, he said he’s not. He said he’s going to be at the UAW (United Auto Workers) strike (in Detroit). I wish that he would come, but I also practice the serenity prayer and appreciate the wisdom to know the difference between the things I can and can’t control or change. And so we move on without him.
What’s interesting for me is that again, how does one of these candidates say that they are his main rival, so that they can try to get this into a two-person race? Gov. (Ron) DeSantis has tried to position himself as that person and actually, Donald Trump took him up on that offer. And his PAC has been pummeling the DeSantis team for months, with millions of dollars of attack ads. And DeSantis’ numbers have not gone up since that last debate. So there is room for somebody else to emerge.
‘Make them fly in formation’
DN: I’m curious what the moderators’ responsibility is when it comes to calling out falsehoods. If a candidate says something that’s inaccurate or blatantly false. do you view it as the moderators’ job to kind of fact-check on the fly, or should that come afterward?
DP: Yes, we do a lot of research on that. I would hope that we could catch it. But also, the other candidates have a responsibility to know their opponents and their weaknesses and to be able to jump on that as well. So we have a ton of research, a great team, and I feel so supported by all the people at Fox. And let me mention also, my co-moderators are two people — one I know very well, Stuart Varney, he and I used to do a “Hannity” hit every Tuesday for five years. And so we got to know each other very well. And now I have a new friend, Ilia Calderon at Univision. And so we share these responsibilities.
I think all of us feel nervousness, but as my speech coach from Colorado State University-Pueblo taught me: it’s OK to have butterflies in your stomach, as long as you make them fly in formation.