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Maybe we should just have CNN’s Jake Tapper moderate all the debates from now on. Tonight, Tapper showed how a strong moderator can peel political candidates away from their pre-planned quips and comfortably boring talking points. Viewers got to see, well, a real debate. “We asked questions that had not been asked, and tried to knock them off their talking points,” Tapper told TVNewser shortly after the debate ended. “We wanted this, as much as possible, to be a conversation.”
It was a real conversation between Republican Rick Scott and Democrat Charlie Crist, and like conversations between two people who clearly do not like each other, it wasn’t always comfortable to watch. But it was fascinating, and it never felt scripted. Part of the credit for that goes directly to Tapper and his producers, who decided the format would be flexible–less about timing, and more about talking. At times, Tapper sat back, ignored the clock, and let the candidates dig in to each other’s answers. At other times, Tapper interrupted, cutting off talking points in mid-sentence with a friendly but firm “thank you.”
A deftly moderated debate like CNN’s can be risky for candidates, but it was wonderful for viewers and voters. To make it happen, Tapper tells TVNewser he and the debate producers (pictured, left) worked for weeks on debate prep. “We went over and over the questions.” Tapper says it was essential that the candidates understood “you’re not going to get to filibuster, but then also, we’re going to try to get them to answer questions.” As in, you know, actually answering the questions.
To make that happen, Tapper consulted with Florida political reporters, asking for suggestions on issues that needed clarification late in the campaign–but also, asking the Florida press corp for some insight into exactly how the two candidates change the topic. “How has this candidate avoided this question in the past?”
Of course, not all questions were answered. Still, Tapper’s deft job as moderator made it very clear to viewers when a question had been skipped or avoided–at times, Tapper simply asked over and over. Contrast that with less successful debates, when a moderator asks a question, a candidate uses it as a chance to deliver a practiced line about something else entirely until time is called and the other candidate gets a question to pivot away from.
The result was refreshing, raw–and interesting. Amazingly, both Democrats and Republicans seemed to find the heated conversation fascinating, yet fair. And yes, Tapper told us, it was as fiery and personal on stage as it seemed on TV. “I felt it was all completely authentic,” Tapper said. “The disdain they have for each other was authentic–and substantive.”