Other Voices

CNN’s Tapper looks to ignite debate exchanges

Megyn Kelly’s faceoff with Donald Trump at the Aug. 6 Republican presidential primary debate hogged its share of summer news cycles.

The moment stemmed from some stellar news research by Kelly and Fox News: They took Trump’s history of misogynistic name-calling and placed it at his feet; political explosions ensued.

As he prepares to moderate the second GOP primary debate Wednesday night at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, Calif., CNN host Jake Tapper professes less interest in that headline-making moment than another key part of the Aug. 6 têtes-à-têtes.

This one came when Kelly asked New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie whether he was serious in blaming Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky. — who opposes bulk collection of phone records by the National Security Agency — in the event of a future terrorist attack.

Christie responded that yes, he was — and fireworks started popping. The back-and-forth between Christie and Paul was both entertaining and edifying.

“That was an interesting exchange, thank you for that,” Kelly said at the end of it all.

It’s precisely that sort of exchange that Tapper is hoping to trigger in Simi Valley — candidates going after candidates, and not so much a moderator going after candidates.

“I do six days a week,” says Tapper, who hosts the weekday show The Lead and the Sunday show State of the Union. It’s also what Tapper’s peers do on every other weekday and Sunday program.

“My focus is entirely on … them debating, not me,” says Tapper, who will be joined in the questioning by panelists Dana Bash, CNN’s chief political correspondent, and conservative radio host Hugh Hewitt of Salem Radio Network.

Fox News didn’t have to accommodate a conservative outsider for its debate, a point that anchor Bret Baier addressed in an interview with Time magazine.

“We didn’t like that stipulation from the beginning,” said Baier in reference to negotiations with the Republican National Committee, “and so we pushed back pretty hard because we wanted what we used last time to be our template. I’m surprised that the other networks went along with it. We wouldn’t.”

On that front, Tapper said Hewitt is “an important player when it comes to the Republican primary,” noting that his show has been aggressive in interviewing the Republican field.

“Our partnerships are what they are and I’m glad Hugh will be joining us,” says Tapper.

A crew of about 15 CNNers is assisting Tapper in developing the questions. Tapper has reached out to some Reagan administration veterans for pointers as well.

The research, he says, extends to examining just which topics got paltry coverage at the Fox News debate.

Any topical holes left by the Aug. 6 showdown may get fresh attention from Tapper, but he declines to specify what they are because “I don’t want to tip my hand,” he says.

As for Trump, Tapper says he’s not “girding” for the real estate mogul in an special way.

“The thing with Donald Trump is he likes to be treated with respect, the same way you would treat Gov. Bush or Ms. Fiorina,” says Tapper.

OK, but as we learned after the last debate, Trump doesn’t necessarily reciprocate.

Erik Wemple is a media critic at The Washington Post.

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