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Fox turns Republican debate into inquisition of Trump

Is it really a candidates' debate if the other contenders onstage get a free pass?

Fox host Bill O'Reilly put it best in one of the post-debate interviews he conducted Thursday night.

"Half the debate tonight was zinging Trump," he said by way of analysis.

And the other half was lost in bad-mouthing, candidate cross talk — mostly between Donald Trump and Marco Rubio, who has been trying to prove for the past 10 days and nights that he can be as rude and obnoxious as the front-runner.

The Detroit debate was not one of Fox's better campaign moments. Or, maybe I am just getting sick of all the posturing and hypocrisy connected with these events.

I know part of my displeasure was a result of all the buildup of the debate as the rematch of Fox moderator Megyn Kelly and Trump after the fireworks of the first Fox debate in August.

I was one of the critics who praised Kelly to the heavens for taking on Trump in a fair and straightforward way over horrible comments he made about women. I further criticized O'Reilly and Roger Ailes, the head of Fox, for not standing behind Kelly more forcefully when Trump started blasting back at her on Twitter and in TV interviews following the showdown. I even bearded O'Reilly on his own show about his tepid response to his milkshake-drinking buddy.

And now that everyone from Jimmy Kimmel to John Oliver and the editorial page writers of The Washington Post have suddenly decided Trump has to be stopped, I'd like to remind them that Kelly was just about the only one who seriously took Trump on back in the summer when it was risky — but he was still vulnerable enough to be stopped.

Where the hell were you folks then?

I'm not criticizing Kelly or her cohorts, Bret Baier and Chris Wallace, for their performance Thursday night.

They came prepared and they asked tough questions. Wallace had one run at Trump in which, after two successive answers by the candidate about how many billions he would cut by eliminating waste, the Fox host asked the producers to put charts up on a big screen that suggested Trump's assertions about potential savings were unrealistic.

But I am not sure how much of it actually stuck to the Teflon Don.

When seemingly pinned down on the limited amount that could be saved by competitive bidding on pharmaceuticals for Medicare, Trump said his estimate was based on competitive bidding for many other products and services beyond drugs. And Wallace's point was greatly weakened by the confusion Trump sowed over what he did or didn't say.

I have to say the trio of moderators, which has maintained great control in previous debates, did not do nearly as well Thursday night. They just couldn't or wouldn't shut Rubio up as he kept yapping away almost every time Trump opened his mouth in the early going. And that just drove Trump into agitating Rubio more with his "little Marco" insult talk. And that led to more yapping. So it went — not a pretty or illuminating picture.

Bottom line, it felt like Fox News got caught up in the anyone-but-Trump wave engulfing the Republican Party and mainstream media since they awoke on the eve of Super Tuesday from their months of civic slumber.

As far as TV, I don't think it was so much a case of being asleep at the wheel as it was an addiction to the ratings Trump brought with him to their shows, thanks to his bombast, plain talk and taste for cable news combat.

And now they are all overcompensating and trying to make up for their sins before this New York businessman gets his party's nomination — even it means thwarting the will of the people who are voting for him.

I am all for a serious vetting of candidates — especially a front-runner. I was the guy who in July urged someone in TV to step up and play Edward R. Murrow to Trump's Joe McCarthy tendencies.

But it didn't happen while everyone in TV was getting fat off Trump's ratings power.

So forgive me if what I saw Thursday night seemed like too much, but too late in the intense focus on Trump.

If you want to bring Trump down now, do it journalistically. Spend some time and money in a real investigation and free up prime-time hours to present your findings. Or isn't that easy enough money for you?

Don't call it a candidates' debate and give the other contenders on the stage a relatively free pass while trying to drill Trump — especially not when you are making millions of dollars thanks in part to his presence at your event.

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