It’s a complex game Ailes is playing. Conversations with Fox sources and media executives suggest a new strategy: Fox is trying to credibly capture the center without alienating its loyal core of rabid viewers. To this end, the network is flexing its news-gathering muscles in high-profile ways that will capture media attention.

Why bother? Partly as a preemptive measure against CNN. While CNN has slipped again to third-place in the cable ratings race, Fox recognizes that the network still poses the biggest threat if it gets its act together. During the 2008 election, Anderson Cooper and Wolf Blitzer surged to the top the ratings for their respective time-slots and CNN scored wins on big news events. Since then, CNN has flailed and ratings have dived. But CNN’s brand remains powerful at big news-making moments — and Presidential elections are about as big as they get. Which partly explains why Fox wants to distance itself from the overt championing of Tea Party politics that defined its post-2008 coverage of Obama. Dominating as much of the election as possible means appealing to viewers beyond the conservative base and being perceived as a credible news outfit. That means pushing the network’s journalists, as when Fox allowed Kurtz to shadow Baier, Wallace and senior Washington producer Marty Ryan before the September debate in Orlando.