Politics & Policy

Hugh Hewitt Prepares to Grill the GOP Contenders

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Republican presidential candidates better be prepared for Hugh Hewitt’s open-book test.

Hewitt, the popular, incisive conservative talk-radio host and law professor is joining CNN’s Jake Tapper to moderate the next GOP presidential debate on September 16. For the first time, a debate moderator is sharing his views on the race and the issues for three hours every weeknight.

A prepared candidate — or any regular Hewitt listener — should already have a good sense of what topics are on his mind. Alert Hewitt fans can even get a sense of how he will approach his role at the debate from his criticism of the questions asked by Fox News’s moderators.

He felt they went after the frontrunner excessively. “I’m not gunning for anyone the way the [Fox News] panel was after Donald Trump,” he declared on his show. He lamented that the Iran deal and the investigation into Hillary Clinton’s server were barely mentioned, and that a more general lack of focus on national security seemed to take hold. “It was like a September 10th debate,” he said. And he suggested that the panel ignored some candidates for long stretches, telling Ben Carson in a post-debate interview that, “It’s as though you went out for coffee and came back in the last 30 minutes [of the debate].”

Hewitt tells NR he’ll be more willing to let the candidates confront each other — to a point. “Getting out of their way if they want to debate each other seems to me to be a good strategy as well, within the constraints of limited time and fairness to all on the stage,” he says. “Trying to trap candidates into ‘gotcha’ answers does not serve GOP primary voters. Allowing the candidates to speak directly to voters on electability and their plans if they win does.”

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Hewitt’s main interest as a moderator is coaxing substance from the candidates, and he’s sure to bring up the issues he contends are woefully under-discussed, such as America’s aging submarine fleet and shrinking navy, and the spread of radical Islamist ideology.

To most of the candidates, Hewitt is a familiar voice. In just the last few weeks, he’s interviewed Ted Cruz, Lindsey Graham, Jeb Bush, Scott Walker, Donald Trump, Marco Rubio, Chris Christie, Rick Santorum, John Kasich, Carly Fiorina, an d Ben Carson.

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Many of these contenders are already attempting to showcase their interest in Hewitt’s priorities. In the first debate, Christie was asked to respond to Rand Paul’s contention that reducing foreign aid would reduce borrowing from China. The New Jersey governor launched into an answer on strengthening the military, saying the next president should, “Bring us to a 350-ship Navy again, and modernize the Ohio class of submarines, and bring our Air Force back to 2,600 aircraft that are ready to go.” Hewitt has said he believes every candidate should read Lawrence Wright’s The Looming Tower, which he calls “the most important book” on the War on Terror. In his most recent appearance on Hewitt’s program, Cruz bragged about recommending the book in an interview with the New York Times.

‘The focus should be on the candidates, not the questioners and not the questions.’

“I am not ‘for’ or ‘against’ any of the candidates,” Hewitt says. “All are talented, experienced people with large numbers of people already supporting them. The debates should help undecided GOP primary voters make up their minds who should be the nominee.”

That doesn’t mean Hewitt never clashes with the candidates. He recently wrote a book about Hillary Clinton entitled The Queen, and he’s made clear he wants GOP candidates to criticize her early and often. Last week, when Hewitt asked Kasich about Clinton, the Ohio governor demurred.

“Hugh, there’s going to be plenty of time to talk about Hillary,” he said. “Can we just, can I just talk about me and my record, and what I want to do, please? I’m just not into trashing people right now. I’d rather talk about what I’m for.”

#related#Hewitt responded that he understood, “but I also believe that Republican primary voters want to make sure that they select someone who’s going to be combative enough vis-à-vis the Hillary Clinton machine, because it’s a big machine, John Kasich. You know that.”

Several times since then, Hewitt has said that it’s a mistake not to attack the Democratic frontrunner. In an interview with Walker, he said, “[Kasich] was reluctant to begin the focus on Hillary Clinton. I am not, and I pressed him on that.”

Still, Hewitt says he’s reluctant to make himself the center of attention at the debate. He hopes to leave viewers who tune into CNN talking about the answers, not his questions.

“The focus should be on the candidates, not the questioners and not the questions,” Hewitt says. “Republican primary voters want to know who can beat Hillary and what they want to do as president.”

— Jim Geraghty is the senior political correspondent for National Review.

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