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Tuesday’s GOP debate puts spotlight on Fox Business Network’s Maria Bartiromo

Maria Bartiromo appears on her "Mornings with Maria" program, on the Fox Business Network, in New York on Tuesday, June 23, 2015.

Maria Bartiromo appears on her “Mornings with Maria” program, on the Fox Business Network, in New York on Tuesday, June 23, 2015.

(Richard Drew / AP)

Fox Business Network anchor Maria Bartiromo believes the Republicans are not helping themselves by whining about the moderators at the primary debates.

“President Obama said it, and it was true,” she said during a conversation at the FBN offices in midtown Manhattan a few days before she takes the stage for the channel’s Nov. 10 primary debate in Milwaukee. “If these guys can’t deal with the moderators, how are you going to be able to deal with Russia and China?”

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But Bartiromo is prepared to take the hits if the candidates get ruffled by the questions she and Fox News Channel and FBN anchor Neil Cavuto serve up during what will be the biggest night in the history of the eight-year-old business news channel.

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“I guess it’s become cool to slap around the moderator. That’s OK,” said Bartiromo, who still has a Brooklyn-bred toughness underneath her glamorous on-camera image. “I’m not uncomfortable with that.”

Bartiromo said her Twitter account was “on fire” as she watched former CNBC colleagues Carl Quintanilla, Becky Quick and John Harwood take on at the GOP contenders on Oct. 28. The event was heavily criticized for the caustic tone of the questioners, leading an angry Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus to suspend a future GOP debate scheduled to air on NBC and Telemundo.

John Mack, the former Chairman & CEO of Morgan Stanley, is interviewed by Maria Bartiromo during the "Mornings with Maria Bartiromo" program on Fox.

John Mack, the former Chairman & CEO of Morgan Stanley, is interviewed by Maria Bartiromo during the “Mornings with Maria Bartiromo” program on Fox.

(Richard Drew / AP)

“I’ve been trying to take the high road and not criticize,” said Bartiromo, who joined FBN in 2013 after 20 years at CNBC. But when pressed to assess the harsh reaction to the CNBC debate, she said, “I think that bias came through, and they wanted to embarrass the Republicans.”

While Bartiromo maintains that she doesn’t traffic in so-called “gotcha” questions, she is aware the debates need to have spontaneous moments. “It’s an exercise in seeing how these guys and gal think on their feet,” she said. “Unforeseen events happen, and you’ve got to react as the leader of the free world. How are you going to act?”

Her approach will include pressing the candidates for details on their tax and budget proposals. “I’m clear on where the holes may be in their plans so I can try to solicit information and help the viewer,” she said. “As far as worrying ‘what if he says this to me, what if he does that to me’ — I don’t have time for that.”

Bartiromo is well aware that her network’s debate-night performance will be compared to the one that was just skewered.

I thrive in pressure situations. That’s how I’ve always led my life. I feel good about it. I’m excited.

Maria Bartiromo

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“The stakes are higher,” she said. “I thrive in pressure situations. That’s how I’ve always led my life. I feel good about it. I’m excited.”

The debate, being held in conjunction with the Wall Street Journal at the Milwaukee Theater, will attract more viewers to FBN than ever, just as the previous face-offs with Donald Trump and company already have done for Fox News Channel (24 million), CNN (22.9 million ) and CNBC (14 million).

The ratings bar will not be as high for FBN, which has been around only since 2007 and for years was available in far fewer cable and satellite homes than CNBC. Parent company 21st Century Fox has worked aggressively to improve the channel’s distribution and is seeing its audience grow. In October, FBN averaged 102,000 viewers during its business news coverage hours (9:30 a.m.-5 p.m. Eastern), up 92% from a year ago. CNBC averaged 213,000 viewers in those hours, up 6%.

Based on the previous debates, an audience in the range of 8 million to 10 million for FBN on Tuesday night is possible. The network also will be front and center as clips of the event show up on cable news programs, morning shows and in late-night monologues during the days that follow.

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That exposure will go a long way toward establishing FBN as the home of Bartiromo, who was such a big personality at CNBC that punk-rocker Joey Ramone wrote a song about her with lyrics that proclaimed: “I watch you on TV every single day/Those eyes make everything OK.”

Bartiromo, who hosts FBN’s daily program “Mornings with Maria” and a weekly roundtable show on Fox News Channel, “Sunday Morning Futures,” acknowledges that it has taken time for the public to recognize her transition from CNBC.

“When I first got here, it was hard,” she said. “People said to me, ‘What are you doing? You’re the face of [CNBC]; why would you leave?’ And I found myself explaining more than I thought I would have to. The fact is [Fox News Chairman and CEO] Roger Ailes has been a mentor to me my entire career. He put me on the air. He was the person who oversaw me becoming the first person to report live from the floor of the New York Stock Exchange. I have very high regard for him. Secondly, I thought audiences were changing, and I had been there for 20 years.”

The overall demand for market coverage on TV has shrunk since the economic crisis of 2008. CNBC’s daytime ratings dropped in the six consecutive years that followed. Former executives at that network say the day traders of the dot-com boom have disappeared, baby boomers are older and more risk-averse and millennials simply don’t have the money to even get into market.

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CNBC no longer depends on Nielsen ratings to sell its daytime audience and now uses research to show it reaches wealthy executives and managers watching in their offices, hotels or health clubs. In prime time, CNBC has gone to reality programming, mostly repeats of the entrepreneur competition show “Shark Tank.”

Bartiromo, who always has had a strong interest in politics, believes Fox Business Network can succeed as an alternative by expanding its focus beyond the financial markets. “We are not speaking to the trade desk,” she said. “[Our] subjects and content are relatable and accessible to a broad group of people that care about money issues.”

Bartiromo is counting on some of the debate audience to wake up with their sets tuned to Fox Business Network on Wednesday morning and sample her daily show. She will be at her anchor desk live from Milwaukee after the long night on the air. “We’re hoping for some spillover,” she said.

Twitter: @SteveBattaglio

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