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

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.' "

For the next 30 minutes, Gibson and Scott Spradling, an anchor at WMUR-TV, the ABC affiliate in New Hampshire, will quiz the candidates in more traditional fashion, with rebuttals allowed. The last 15 minutes will feature questions tailored to individual candidates, with no rebuttals unless someone is attacked by name.

After the GOP debate, Gibson hopes to switch out part of the audience in less than 10 minutes, expressing admiration for how Disney World (run by ABC's corporate parent) moves the crowds at the ride "It's a Bug's Life."

The debate field is likely to be narrowed by ABC rules that will exclude candidates who fail to meet one of three benchmarks. They must finish no lower than fourth in Iowa, or poll at least 5 percent -- either nationally or in New Hampshire -- in one of four most recent surveys. ABC has a partnership with Facebook, which is co-sponsoring the debate, and Gibson may draw on material from the social networking site. The Facebook/ABC page has been posting a daily question, some posed anonymously by Gibson. The biggest response: 71,000 answered a question about what role faith should play in a president's decision-making (64 percent said no role). "Their answers get distributed to their friends through their news feeds," says Dan Rose, a Facebook vice president. "They spread virally. . . . The goal here is to get a large number of people engaged."

In an online poll for ABC, Facebook members backed Barack Obama over Hillary Rodham Clinton, 58 percent to 18 percent, while favoring Ron Paul over Mitt Romney, 38 percent to 15 percent. Such Web polls, based on self-selection, are totally unscientific.

While the ABC debate could be pivotal, the Republicans will go at it again the next night, in a Fox News session moderated by Chris Wallace.

Gibson plans one other wrinkle on Saturday. During the transition between debates, the self-described "Boy Scout" will ask the incoming Democrats to shake hands with the exiting Republicans.

"I have enormous admiration for anyone who puts themselves through the crucible of running for president," Gibson says. "I think symbolically it's terribly important. . . . I want to beat Brian Williams and Katie Couric, but I have enormous respect for both of them."

The Right Stuff?

Bill Kristol, the Weekly Standard editor, will launch a weekly column for the New York Times next Monday.

"They're believers in diversity and so am I," the onetime Republican strategist says of the paper's famously liberal op-ed page, which had been looking for a second conservative to join David Brooks. "They could use a pro-Bush, pro-war, pro-life, pro-eavesdropping opinion now and then, don't you think?"

The one-year experiment involving an outside pundit is an unusual move for the Times. Kristol has taken shots at the paper, such as declaring on Fox News last year that "it is an open question whether the Times itself should be prosecuted for this totally gratuitous revealing of an ongoing secret classified program that is part of the war on terror." The Times disclosed details of an effort to track financing for terrorists.

Kristol says he plans to "leave the Times alone" in his own writing but told Publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr. and Editorial Page Editor Andrew Rosenthal that would not be the case for his magazine, owned by Rupert Murdoch. "I made clear I'm not censoring the Standard in any way, and they said they didn't expect me to," he says.

Asked about detractors who say he has been discredited by years of optimistic predictions about the Iraq war, Kristol says: "Critics come with the territory."

Sad Timing

Parade magazine's cover story for next Sunday is a profile of Benazir Bhutto -- printed before her assassination in Pakistan last week.

Multiple Choice

William Safire suggested recently that I take a stab at emulating his year-end predictions column (which, as a bonus, requires no legwork). With apologies to the master, which of the following will come to pass by the end of 2008?

Katie Couric will be:

a. Anchor of the "CBS Evening News"

b. A full-time "60 Minutes" correspondent

c. Hosting a daytime talk show

d. Joining Dan Rather in his suit against CBS

The Wall Street Journal will be:

a. Stripped of all credibility as a Rupert Murdoch plaything

b. A USA Today clone

c. The most improved newspaper of the year

d. Relocated to Australia

CNN's newest hire, Campbell Brown, will be:

a. Surprisingly competitive in cable's 8 p.m. time slot

b. Decimated by O'Reilly and Olbermann

c. Wearing skimpy outfits

d. Deciding to spend more time with her baby

The new Fox Business Network will be:

a. Giving CNBC a run for its money

b. So low-rated it won't warrant an asterisk

c. Having Sean Hannity read stock prices

d. Hosted entirely by babes in bars

The media's biggest campaign mistake will have been:

a. Writing off John McCain as a dead duck

b. Giving non-candidate Fred Thompson a huge advance buildup

c. Failing to notice Mike Huckabee for 11 months

d. Underestimating the impact of the Hillary cleavage issue

Karl Rove will add to his Newsweek column by:

a. Writing one for Time as well

b. Succeeding Brit Hume as host of "Special Report"

c. Launching a blog with James Carville

d. Setting up a 24-hour Webcam in his home

The Hollywood writers' strike will:

a. Be settled by a reasonable compromise

c. Be settled after "Daily Show" writers take Les Moonves and Jeff Zucker hostage

d. Cause an unscripted Leno and Conan to put America to sleep

e. Make YouTube more popular than television

The year's biggest tabloid story will be:

a. TMZ's photos of a distraught Nancy Pelosi cutting off her hair

b. O.J. hiring Nancy Grace to beat the burglary rap

c. A presidential candidate dropping out over his Paris Hilton sex tape

d. The Nickelodeon reality show starring Jamie Lynn Spears's infant

My picks are being kept in a secure, undisclosed location. Unlike Safire, I hate public humiliation.

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