George Stephanopoulos to lead debate tonight among Florida's Senate candidates
George Stephanopoulos will have a simple mission when he comes to Florida today, moderating a debate among U.S. Senate candidates independent Gov. Charlie Crist, Democrat Kendrick Meek and Republican Marco Rubio for ABC affiliates across the state.
“I want to do my homework and once we get going, just keep the debate moving and make sure the candidates are held accountable for their positions,” said Stephanopoulos, who leads the event at 7 tonight from WFTV-TV studios in Orlando.
“This is one of the most fascinating races in the country,” added the Good Morning America co-anchor, who also serves as chief political correspondent for ABC News. “You have so many storylines – the incumbent governor who becomes an independent, a Republican candidate who was ahead of the curve as a member of the tea party and a Democrat who – in some ways, the race proceeding exactly as he predicted.”
Stephanopoulos will be joined by Brendan McLaughlin from WFTS-Ch. 28 in Tampa and Craig Patrick of WFTV. The debate will air on all the stations and be streamed on their websites, including ABCNews.com
McLaughlin, who stepped down from WFTS’ 11 p.m. broadcast to spend more time reporting on politics -- he still anchors the 6 p.m. broadcast -- hoped to bring a local reporters’ familiarity with the candidates to the questions. (WFTS is also providing a minimum of five minutes’ free airtime to political candidates in the month before the elections.)
“I think I might have a better sense of how these guys are perceived around the state,” said McLaughlin, who just returned from Phoenix, where he assembled reports on how that city handled the politics of building a rail system similar to Florida’s project. “There’s just no substitute for covering news in the field.”
Of course, Stephanopoulos wouldn’t divulge specific questions, but did say they will cover the “waterfront” of issues you would expect: the economy, immigration, foreign policy and trade, and local issues. And though the anchor got lots of flak for the last big national debate he moderated -- a 2008 Democratic presidential primary debate in which he and co-moderator Charlie Gibson spent the first 45 minutes asking questions about hot-button controversies unrelated to serious policy issues -- Stephanopoulos doesn't expect that experience t change what he'll do today.
"Every debate is different," he said. "I thought the questions we raised (in 2008) continued to be raised across that campaign. As I said at the time, you can quarrel with the order of the question and at one point the time got a little out of whack -- we'll make sure that doesn't happen again. But in taking the heat for tough questions -- well, that just comes with the territory."
As controversy builds over how easily figures such as Sarah Palin and Eliot Spitzer move from politics to starring roles as news analysts or show anchors, Stephanopoulos is either the ultimate example of of that trend or that last guy to handle such a transition the old fashioned way.
After serving as Bill Clinton's communications director in the White House, Stephanopoulos left the administration in 1996, eventually becoming an analyst for ABC News, then a correspondent, then host of its Sunday politics show This Week and now co-host of GMA.
If he follows the same trajectory as current World News anchor Diane Sawyer, Stephanopoulos' next stop is the top anchor job at ABC News whenever Sawyer decides to leave -- a progression which took him more than 10 years to make. But ask how he feels seeing former New York governor Spitzer vault from political disgrace in a prostitution scandal to co-hosting a CNN show in just two years, and he refuses to speculate.
"They're doing different jobs," he said in reference to Palin and Spitzer, speaking with the firmness of a fellow used to staying on message. "It's just a different path."
One thing he will admit: Relating to how the candidates must feel now, in the final weeks of a long, bruising campaign.
"At this point in time, it's a lot about endurance; hoping your voice holds up through the final three weeks," he said, laughing. "The economy is in far worse shape now than it was in 1994 … and the Republican Party is not viewed as favorably now as it was in 1994. And Democrats have gotten a little more warning about what's coming."