How Fox anchor Bret Baier prepared for the GOP debate and got an instant headline out of Donald Trump

With the Republican presidential primary debate less than 10 hours away, Fox News anchors Chris Wallace, Megyn Kelly and Bret Baier sat at a long table with their producers and once again went over the game plan for the big night.

Leaning into their laptop computers, they reviewed not just the questions they would ask but the structure of every query, keeping in mind the constraints of time and the need to avoid repeating topics. As they sorted and re-sorted questions, the unpredictability of real estate tycoon and reality-TV star Donald Trump was never far from their minds.

"I would say the level is about an eight on the concern meter because of the unknown," Baier said.

Baier even had a "nuclear option" at the ready for Trump if he ignored all protocol.

The script — which Baier didn't have to use — took a page from Trump's "Celebrity Apprentice" TV show. It went like this: "Mr. Trump, in your business you have rules. You follow rules. We have rules on this stage. We don't want to have to escort you to the elevator outside this boardroom."

"We're hoping we don't have to use it," Baier said later. "[But] we're locked and loaded."

For anyone embedded with the news team on debate day, it became clear that it wasn't just the Republican hopefuls who would be on-stage this night — but also Fox News, widely seen as the network most friendly to conservatives. No one here wanted to appear as if they were pitching softballs.

"You can't let them have that offramp" was Baier's rule as they hone each line.

Indeed, when Kelly rehearsed a question for another candidate — delivered in the staccato style that adds to her reputation as a tenacious interrogator — a producer at the table said, "He'll go berserk." That's a compliment for Kelly, who smiled.

For the individual anchors, the debate was also a chance to burnish their reputations. Kelly has emerged as the channel's prime-time star. Wallace is a seasoned veteran of the Washington beat. Baier has perhaps the most to gain from the expanded national spotlight.

The 45-year-old graduate of DePauw University in Indiana anchors "Special Report," a serious, straight-ahead rendering of Washington news followed by a political panel discussion known for its civility in an arena famous for shouting matches. Baier, who is also chief political anchor, was never seen in "Daily Show" host Jon Stewart's polemics about Fox News' over-the-top talking heads.

Baier's show competes against broadcast network evening newscasts in most of the country, and the added exposure from the debate can't hurt. He is already keenly aware of the markets where "Special Report" tops one or more of his competitors at ABC, CBS and NBC in the ratings and wants more of them. The program has long held a dominant ratings lead over CNN's Wolf Blitzer in the hour.

He has a fair number of fans in Cleveland, who stop him on the street to catch a selfie with him as he walks to a steakhouse Wednesday night.

When Baier settles in over a New York strip and a glass of Cabernet and is asked about the pressure of the bright spotlight that's about to hit, he exudes an inner calm. It's the anchor's way since the harrowing days he and his wife Amy experienced after the birth of his oldest son, Paul, in 2007.

Born with a major heart defect, Paul required surgery just days after he came into the world and a second operation months later. (Though he faces more surgery as he grows up, he's now an active and healthy 8-year-old who is on a swim team and shares his father's obsession with golf.)

"It changed who I am," Baier said. "It changed where my mind is. The debate is a huge event. It's a big night. But in the big picture, families around this country are out there dealing with something like sitting in an emergency room waiting for their kid to get out of surgery. So Donald Trump not listening to a buzzer when his time is up — in the big picture — that doesn't even rate."

As Baier makes his way to the exit of the restaurant, he's stopped by veteran Washington journalist Chris Matthews of MSNBC. Matthews grins and shakes his head in wonderment over how Trump has given Fox News a potential political spectacle for the ages.

"You guys have got it made," Matthews tells Baier, repeatedly.

Before every debate — he moderated five during the 2012 primary season — Baier will spend 10 minutes alone behind a closed door to pray.

"I've done that every time and that gets me ready," he said. "It's just a quiet moment. No computers. It's meditative. It's a thankful and grateful thing to be in the spotlight." He'll put in that time even after attending Catholic morning Mass with his mother, Pat, and brother, Tim, who both traveled to Cleveland to watch him in action.

Judging from the ratings — a record 24 million viewers watched the debate — and positive reviews that came from well outside of the usual conservative fans of the channel, the preparation and perhaps the praying paid off.

Baier believed he had a "blowtorch" to start off the debate when he asked for a pledge by all the candidates to not mount a third-party challenge if they were not chosen as the nominee. He ended up with an instant headline within a few minutes when Trump refused to make that pledge.

The next moment that set social media ablaze came when Kelly stiff-armed Trump's joke about comedian Rosie O'Donnell and forced him to address his past disparaging remarks about women.

Off camera, Baier said he has played golf with Trump and describes him as a nice guy outside of his TV persona. He never believed Trump would actually enter the race. Trump not only got in, but his blustery entrance, powered by his inflammatory remarks about Mexican immigrants, has altered the narrative of the campaign. Trump's harsh comments about Kelly delivered Friday on CNN after the debate last Thursday became the latest in a series of firestorms he has so far been able to survive. He spent the weekend on news programs trying to reel back his remark implying that menstruation was the reason Kelly was tough on him during the debate. The comment got him disinvited from a weekend appearance before a conservative group in Atlanta.

Baier anticipated that some Republican Party faithful would agree with Trump that the moderators were too tough, and he was right. Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), one of the lower-polling presidential candidates in the afternoon debate, called the evening session "an inquisition."

The reaction didn't surprise Fox News Chairman Roger Ailes. "Most of the criticism I get is from the right because they assume I'm going to do a certain thing and I don't necessarily do what anybody assumes," Ailes said in an interview Friday. "This is an example of that."

But Ailes limited his input on the broadcast to how it looked on-screen and offering encouragement to his on-air team to be tough and fair. Counter to reports that he's involved in all things Republican, he said he had no hand in coming up with the challenging questions. He was confident in his on-air moderating team, which he described as "the best we've seen in television history."

Baier received warm congratulations from spectators and candidates as he made his way offstage at Quicken Loans Arena and into a corridor off the arena floor. But when Trump came by, he simply shook the anchor's hand and looked straight ahead. The scene was a preview of the turmoil to come.

"They weren't nice to me," Trump bellowed as he moved on with his entourage in tow. "I tell you that Megyn is no good. No good. Bad."

When asked whether Trump was mad, Baier smiled and his eyes widened.

"I think he was," he said.

stephen.battaglio@latimes.com

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