When CNN anchor Jake Tapper takes the stage at the Reagan Library on Wednesday night to preside over four hours of squabbling Republicans, the specter of last month’s Fox News debates will be looming large over the proceedings.
The fireworks generated by those August 6 clashes attracted historic cable television audiences—6 million viewers for the undercard debate in which former Hewlett-Packard chief executive Carly Fiorina delivered her breakout performance, and an astonishing 24 million for the prime-time debate that devolved into a media Götterdämmerung between frontrunner Donald Trump and Fox News star Megyn Kelly.
“Well, look, Fox has a pretty good market when it comes to Republican events, and they got a stupendous number,” Tapper told The Daily Beast, as he and his fellow questioners, CNN political reporter Dana Bash and conservative radio host Hugh Hewitt, girded themselves for two back-to-back battles in Simi Valley, California.
The first will be a so-called “happy hour” debate at 6 p.m. Eastern Time featuring four GOP presidential candidates who are trailing in the polls, and then comes the main event, a prime-time debate, starting sometime after 8 p.m., in which Trump will face down 10 of his opponents.
“I hope we get the same or equal,” Tapper said about the Fox News rating, “but that’s a pretty high bar.”
If Tapper, like the politicians he covers, is playing the expectations game, “I’m not doing it for the same reason that a politician does,” he said. “I legitimately am not going to judge how the night goes by that metric. [The Fox Nielsen number] was lightning in a bottle. It was the first debate, and there was this great unknown as a political force, Donald Trump, and there were a lot of things lining up. But it would be great if we came close.”
Hewitt, for one, has expressed the possibly vain hope that in contrast to the Fox debate, it will be the candidates, and not the questioners, who end up in the line of fire.
Hewitt was recently blasted as “a third-rate radio announcer” by Trump, never one to hold back on trashing the refs.
As a guest on Hewitt’s radio show Trump got embarrassingly confused by what he complained was a “gotcha” question about the Iranian Quds Force—instead giving an answer about the Kurds in Iraq.
“I’ve been called much worse,” Hewitt said Monday on MSNBC’s Morning Joe program. “It’s all about the candidates, not about the questioners. And I tell everyone hopefully on Thursday that the headlines will have nothing to do with the panelists or Jake or the moderator and the questioners, but have everything to with exchanges between candidates.”
Hewitt predicted: “Sparks will fly.”
CNN senior vice president and Washington bureau chief Sam Feist, who has been overseeing presidential debates for the cable outlet since the 2004 election cycle, predicted that the candidates—each standing behind an aluminum and plexiglass lectern, with a majestic backdrop of President Reagan’s 707 Air Force One—will be challenged to address from 20 to two dozen separate topics over the course of two hours.
“The goal of the debate is to eliminate similarities between the candidates,” Feist told The Daily Beast. “You will not see a series of questions that really apply to one candidate,” he added, in a veiled reference to the Fox debate. “To me that’s a wasted opportunity.”
Feist said that in contrast to normal programming, which is regularly interrupted by advertising, there will be only four commercial breaks over the course of the prime-time debate (with one of them a little longer than the scheduled two minutes to allow for candidate or panelist restroom visits).
CNN steadfastly has refused to respond to Trump’s public suggestion that because the network is reportedly raising its ad rates for the debate 4,000 percent—from the usual $5,000 to $200,000 for 30 seconds—the excess profits should go to charity, preferably a charity that helps military veterans.
Still unknown is whether Nancy Reagan, the 94-year-old former first lady, will be sitting the audience.
Although she has been involved in the planning, signing each letter of invitation to the candidates, she is in frail health and normally makes no public appearances these days.
Tapper—who along with Bash and Hewitt has been spending the past month with a research team formulating and refining questions for the candidates and, more recently, practicing dry runs—said he’ll judge the evening a success if the contenders mix it up and passionately define their policy disputes.
“Our goal has been to provoke as much debate as possible,” Tapper said. “Look, we’re not holding a candidates’ forum. We’re not holding a succession of 16 interviews. [It would be 15 now; Tapper spoke to The Daily Beast just as former Texas governor Rick Perry, who was scheduled to be front and center at the “happy hour” debate, was announcing his withdrawal from the GOP nomination race.]
“We are holding a debate. The goal is for the candidates to be engaging each other and disagreeing—and explaining why their view is the right one, why their policy is the right one.”
While the post-Fox debate commentary focused largely on Trump and his seemingly endless insults for Kelly and her fellow interrogators, Bret Baier and Chris Wallace, Tapper said the most gripping moment for him was the dustup over national security policy between New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul.
“That debate had a lot of exciting moments,” Tapper said, “but the best moment for me was when Chris Christie and Rand Paul went at it over the NSA surveillance program and the collection of metadata.
They had a very passionate disagreement about a very important issue. I saw that and I told Jeff Zucker [CNN’s president], ‘Let’s have a lot of those.’ And he had the same feeling.”
Tapper, however, resists that notion that he and his fellow interrogators will be striving to foster a gladiatorial confrontation that viewers will find entertaining.
“I would use the word ‘compelling’ for an audience,” he said. “I want it to be very engaging and compelling. I want people to see how these candidates disagree over policy—and not only policy. Look, style and approach is an important part of how a president is president.”
Tapper continued: “Who they are as people, how they approach conflict, how they approach challenges—there are some very serious substantive disagreements, but how they view their job is also incredibly important, as well as the manner in which they conduct themselves. That’s just as important for viewers as policy differences.”
The 46-year-old host of CNN’s weekday afternoon news show, The Lead, as well as the cable channel’s Sunday public affairs program, State of The Union, Tapper has interviewed each candidate one-on-one on multiple occasions.
But while he has moderated gubernatorial and senatorial debates before, he’s never tried to orchestrate a White House-level confrontation.
Tapper has admitted to a slight case of nerves—but only slight—over his impending loss of presidential-debate virginity, comparing himself to a lion tamer wielding a whip and a chair as he attempts to enforce the rules—calling for a minute-long response to a direct question, and a 30-second rebuttal by any other candidate mentioned or attacked in the answer—among the massive egos in a crowd of White House wannabes.
ABC’s longtime White House correspondent before jumping to CNN in 2013, Tapper is an avowed political junkie who has been mainlining televised debates since his teenage years.
“I remember watching the 1984 Democratic debate with Gary Hart, Fritz Mondale, Fritz Hollings, and Jesse Jackson”—in which former vice president Mondale famously unleashed on Senator Hart, his “New Democrat” rival, a lethal line from a popular Wendy’s commercial, “Where’s the beef?”
“Who would have thought that it would be Walter Mondale [Fritz’s given name] who would channel a pop culture moment to go after an opponent, but he did. That’s fun,” Tapper said.
Three decades later, “I don’t know how many of them are coming to the stage with zingers like that in their pockets. Mondale’s obviously worked. But for every one that works, there are 30 that just miss completely.”
Will Tapper prepare some zingers of his own?
“Not really,” he said. “The only thing in my pockets will be to focus mainly on the questions, and keep the debate going.”
He added: “It would be wonderful, obviously, if we could adhere to the rules.”