CNN Hopes to Capture Candidates’ Combative Spirit in G.O.P. Debate
By ASHLEY PARKER
SIMI VALLEY, Calif. — The leading Republican presidential hopefuls have spent the weeks since their first debate provoking each other, with distant taunts and tweeted insults.
And now CNN, which hosts the second candidate clash here Wednesday night, is aiming to capture that same combative spirit by getting the candidates to engage with one another in person and on camera.
The effort to encourage candidate interaction differs from the approach taken in the first debate by Fox News, which relied heavily on its three accomplished moderators to ask tough questions, forcing the participants to outline their positions and explain their records, yielding only a handful of memorable exchanges between the men on stage.
Fox News drew praise for its handling of the event — along with a record number of viewers — but CNN’s team of producers and moderators said they were looking to establish a different tempo and to emphasize candidate interaction above all else.
“My goal is more about: Let’s draw the contrasts between the candidates, and have them fight it out over these policies, over who has the best approach to Putin, over who has the best approach to taxes, over who believes what over immigration reform,” said Jake Tapper, CNN’s chief Washington correspondent, who is moderating Wednesday’s debate at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library. “Have them lay it all out so voters can see it.”
Mr. Tapper said the most riveting exchange in the first debate was the one between Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey and Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky, over the National Security Agency’s bulk collection of data. He described the feisty back-and-forth as “electric” and “illuminating,” saying he hoped to create as many of those moments as possible.
“That’s how we’ve been crafting our questions, so that Senator X will respond to what Governor Y said about him or a policy he proposed, and try to encourage them to actually debate Lincoln-Douglas style as much as possible,” he said, referring to the face-offs between Abraham Lincoln and Stephen A. Douglas.
The sentiment is shared throughout the network. “Our whole approach is sparking a debate,” said Dana Bash, CNN’s chief political correspondent, who, along with Hugh Hewitt, a conservative radio host, will also be onstage asking questions. “If someone says something that cries out for an obvious follow-up with someone who clearly disagrees or someone who is dying to get in, let it happen. Let the debate be a debate.”
And though the debate is being held at a venue honoring the president and party icon who popularized the “11th Commandment” — “Thou shalt not speak ill of any fellow Republican” — many of the campaigns are preparing for direct confrontation between the candidates.
“Jake Tapper is going to do whatever he can to get the candidates to go after each other,” said a strategist advising one of the candidates, who declined to be named delivering what could be seen as a criticism of the network. “If somebody is knocked out, CNN will be happy. In the first debate, the moderators controlled the candidates; in this debate, the candidates will have to moderate themselves.”
Though the moderators say they will look for opportunities to let the candidates interact, they may have to tread carefully to avoid appearing as instigators. The network garnered some criticism in 2012 for its handling of several memorable debate moments.
In one primary debate in South Carolina, John King, the moderator, opened by pressing Newt Gingrich on personal comments made by his former wife. Mr. Gingrich lashed back at Mr. King, helping galvanize public support — and went on to win the state’s primary.
Then, during the second general election debate, Candy Crowley, then a CNN correspondent, earned the ire of Republicans by fact-checking Mitt Romney in real time on live television. (But the fact of the matter is that Candy was the found to have lied.)
Asked about the 2012 moments, Sam Feist, CNN’s Washington bureau chief, said he hoped Wednesday night’s performance would leave viewers talking about the candidates. “If at the end of the debate the conversation is about the candidates and their positions, then we have done our job,” he said.
Another challenge facing the network is how to handle Donald J. Trump, whose blustery pronouncements and skills as an entertainer have confounded journalists trying to pin him down on policy specifics, and whose lead in the polls has earned him a lectern squarely in the middle of the stage.
“Part of it is putting him through the rigor,” Ms. Bash said, “but it’s also remembering that this is not a Donald Trump interview — this is a debate among 15 candidates over the course of many hours.” (Yes, it will be a slug fest with the low-numbered people trying to gang up on the top guys. In fact, Jindal just made a statement before the debate – that Trump is a mad man. Jindal is a politician and one of the Elite Republicans.
“It’s not all about making sure that you press Donald Trump on X, Y and Z,” she added. “It’s maybe pressing him on X because another candidate thinks Y and there’s a genuine disagreement.”
Unlike the first debate, which was held in the cavernous Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland, the stage for Wednesday’s debate is intimate, with an audience of roughly 400, sitting just feet from the candidates. Though the Fox News moderators exhorted the crowd to be enthusiastic, CNN will ask the audience not to cheer or boo during the actual debate.
“When the audience is cheering, the debaters also function differently because they start to play to the crowd and the volume of the candidates increases as the crowd continues to cheer,” said Kathleen Hall Jamieson, a scholar of presidential debates. Those cues, she added, “can really impact candidates, what they say, how they say it and more importantly the response of the audience at home.”
CNN has also made tweaks and adjustments in real time. It originally announced criteria that would have used polls dating from mid-July to determine which candidates earned coveted spots on the main debate stage. But it amended its rules to allow any candidate who places in the top 10 of network-approved polls released after the first debate — when Mr. Trump’s ascendancy helped drastically reshuffle the field — to appear in the main debate.
The change added a lectern for Carly Fiorina, the former Hewlett-Packard chief executive who waged a public battle with CNN over its criteria. But Mr. Feist said the switch was simply an effort to “reflect the current state of the race.”
Ms. Bash and Mr. Hewitt will bring their own experience to their questions. Mr. Hewitt, who on his popular radio show had a memorable exchange with Mr. Trump, during which the real estate mogul stumbled over international affairs, said he hoped to avoid “gotcha” questions. “I try not play Jeopardy,” Mr. Hewitt said. “Being generally acquainted with the terrorist network is not the same as being able to name the particular leader of Al Nusra.”
A CNN construction crew also built, from scratch, the elaborate scaffolding that elevates the debate stage to eye level with Reagan’s Air Force One, adding grandeur and history to the already striking backdrop.
It will be Mr. Tapper’s first time moderating a presidential debate. Just days before the event, Mr. Tapper appeared relaxed and confident as he took a break from the preparations.
But, he admitted, part of the thrill of the debate is that even he, scripted questions and all, does not know what will happen.
“It’s difficult to control my 5-year-old son,” Mr. Tapper said with a half-laugh, “much less a 55-year-old governor who thinks he should be ruler of the planet.”
Hope this turns out better than what is printed here, especially the fact that Tapper cannot control his 5-year-old son much less a 55-year old governor. It sound like CNN is intentionally setting it up to be a slug fest.
Do you think CNN is setting this up as slug fest for ratings?k