ABC's Gibson, Trying to Set The Table for Meatier Debates

ABC News anchor Charlie Gibson will moderate back-to-back debates among Democratic and Republican presidential candidates on Saturday night.
ABC News anchor Charlie Gibson will moderate back-to-back debates among Democratic and Republican presidential candidates on Saturday night. (By Donna Svennevik -- Abc)
By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, December 31, 2007

Charlie Gibson has a novel approach in mind for the next faceoff among the presidential candidates.

"I'm going to put a question on the table, and to the extent that I can, I'm going to disappear," he says. "It's not about me. It's not about showing I can ask a clever question. It's about them."

The ABC anchor, who admits to being nervous, will be in the extraordinary position of quizzing both Republicans and Democrats in back-to-back debates Saturday night, with just a few minutes separating the two 90-minute sessions. The showdowns are scheduled on the heels of the Iowa caucuses and three days before the New Hampshire primary.

"This is sort of a high-wire act," Gibson says. "I could fail miserably with this."

Among other things, Gibson plans to have the candidates seated in a semicircle, the better to foster what he likens to a dinner table discussion. "Every debate I've watched, they feel very Balkanized behind the podium," he says.

There will be no blinking lights or artificial time limits, with Gibson meting out what he calls "fair time" based on clocks tracking the candidates' performance. And ABC's strict criteria for participation could mean as few as four contenders of either party onstage -- a crucial winnowing for the first prime-time debate to be carried by a broadcast network this season.

After a year of debates that have ranged from feisty to forgettable, Gibson has been casting about for an approach that would move beyond scripted sound bites.

"Charlie really wanted to design it in such a way that gives more time to issues of substance, to allow the candidates a bit more time to have a conversation and debate the big issues in this high-stakes election," says David Chalian, ABC's political director. Voters, he says, "deserve more than just 60-second answers."

Says Gibson: "There's a disconnect between running for president and being president. To the extent you can bring those together in a debate, I would like to try."

Campaign debates tend to reflect the personality of the moderator. When Tim Russert and Chris Matthews were involved, the questioning took a sharply aggressive turn. When Des Moines Register Editor Carolyn Washburn ran the show, it felt like a junior high school lecture. The video questioners at CNN's YouTube debates ranged from spunky to spooky.

From the moment the ABC doubleheader, anchored by Diane Sawyer, kicks off at 7 p.m. at Manchester's Saint Anselm College, the format will be a bit unorthodox. Gibson plans to devote the first 45 minutes of each debate to three big topics -- different for each party -- and basically let the candidates go at it.

He is aware, of course, that good television can't be deadly dull, and he plans to intervene if everyone is nodding in agreement, or shouting at each other. "I don't want 'The McLaughlin Group.' . . . I may have to step in and say, 'Okay, guys, calm down.' "

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