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The bus' brain trust reveals its debate strategy (sort of).
By AARON SHAROCKMAN, Times Staff Writer
Published November 28, 2007
[Dirk Shadd | Times]
ST. PETERSBURG -- The call came in at 6:47 Monday evening. Details were thin.
Meet at the lobby of the Mahaffey Theater, the caller said. Eight o'clock.
In the 27-year history of CNN, the venerable cable network, outside reporters never before had been allowed in on the most sensitive debate preparations.
If it was going to happen this time, if a reporter was going to watch producers pick the questions the eight GOP presidential hopefuls will be asked tonight, things would have to be handled sensitively.
"We're all real nervous about this," said Sam Feist, CNN's political director, when he met a St. Petersburg Times reporter and photographer at the Mahaffey's grand lobby. "We don't do this. We've never done this."
* * *
The St. Petersburg Times first asked CNN executives in July to be allowed to watch the video selection process for tonight's CNN/YouTube debate.
It took until Nov. 19 to get clearance.
The time and place was not revealed for another week.
Picking questions for a presidential debate, it's a top secret thing.
Among the things the Times agreed to before it could enter what a CNN executive called its "undisclosed location:"
The Times also said it would not publish the fate of specific questions.
* * *
Though CNN has been reviewing videos for months, the process began in earnest last week.
Members of CNN's Washington-based political unit met with the staff of debate moderator Anderson Cooper in New York.
The group -- about 10 people -- began whittling down the 5,000-or-so video submissions.
Gotcha questions were eliminated. So were most that seemed like they came from Democrats or went on for too long.
Eventually a more manageable catalog emerged.
Researchers built a spreadsheet of what was left, indexed by topic and preference.
The group then headed to Florida, where the decisions would get tougher.
* * *
CNN's undisclosed location in St. Petersburg is easy enough to find. It's a giant bus with the network's distinctive red lettering printed on the side.
The bus is a roving newsroom, complete with 10 flat-panel televisions, hookups for lights and cameras, and a high-definition satellite connection.
It beats meeting in a Mahaffey ballroom, officials said, because it's CNN's turf.
There are only two doors on the bus -- and CNN has the keys.
"We control the process," said Feist. "That way, we don't have to worry about people overhearing the question process."
Feist, political editor Mark Preston, producer Alan Isenberg, political researcher Alan Silverleib, producer Claire Brinberg, senior producer Melissa Block, political research director Rob Yoon, producer Jack Gray and a group of others convened Monday around their Dell laptops to hammer out what immigration questions the Republicans could face.
Cooper, who will lead the candidates' discussion starting at 8 tonight, was not present.
Feist said Cooper will be able to review the questions and make changes.
There will be about 70 questions prepped for the show, but only 40 may be asked.
Which 40 depends on the dynamics of the debate.
* * *
In 30 minutes, the group reviewed about 10 questions.
They were looking for content and composition.
Video quality was important, as was geographic diversity. The group also considered "Florida issues."
But most of the talk focused on how candidates would respond.
Was the question an issue in the campaign already?
Is the candidate's position widely known?
Would there be differences of opinion among the candidates?
By the end of the discussion, the group found five immigration questions it liked.
That doesn't mean all of them will be asked, the group said. Or that there won't be more.
CNN is preparing several questions for each major issue -- they call them modules. Feist, CNN Washington bureau chief David Bohrman and their team will be working throughout the debate. Cooper, Bohrman and Feist together have the final say.
They won't talk about them, or much of anything else, when it comes to the questions.
After about 30 minutes on the bus, a CNN publicist asks a Times reporter and photographer if they "got enough."
The message is clear: It's time to leave.
But what about the questions coming tonight?
"I'll tell you when it's over," Feist said.
Aaron Sharockman can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 892-2273.
[Last modified November 28, 2007, 01:13:49]