Learning from recent history, Brian Williams let candidates slug it out with each other during Florida GOP debate
Perhaps learning from how the candidate benefited from tangling with Fox News and CNN anchors in past debates, NBC's Brian Williams wisely kicked off tonight's GOP debate in Florida by reminding Newt Gingrich of what his biggest rival said about him on the stump.
"Your rival, your opponent on this stage, Governor Romney, was out today calling you erratic, a failed leader, and warning that your nomination for this party could perhaps result in what he called an 'October surprise a day,'" Williams asked. "So given the fact that he went after you today on this topic of electability, your response tonight, Mr. Speaker?"
That, in a moment, is how Williams and the other moderators avoided moments where they became the news during the debate, televised nationally from the University of South Florida in Tampa and co-moderated by Adam Smith of the Tampa Bay Times and Beth Reinhard from the National Journal. The debate was co-sponsored by all three media organizations.
Rather than remind Gingrich of an ex-wife or challenge him on allegations of race-baiting, Williams turned the candidates toward each other early on, recalling some of their best barbs against each other to start the ball rolling quickly. Indeed, the first five minutes of the debate featured back and forth sniping between Gingrich and Mitt Romney; the first seven questions were for Romney or Gingrich and Ron Paul didn't get a question until 15 minutes into the event.
When asking about Gingrich's resignation from the House, Williams called it a "departure," leaving Romney to say he "resign(ed) in disgrace" (one cheeky tweeter -- okay, me -- suggested viewers take a drink every time Romney said similar words).
Still Williams and his co=anchors did their homework. When Rick Santorum touted his electability, Williams was ready to remind him how badly he lost in his last re-election bid to the Senate from Pennsylvania. Reinhard asked Gingrich how he could justify creating campaign ads in Spanish when he had argued for the primacy of English as America's official language. And Smith reminded viewers that Santorum flew to Florida to enter the debate over Terri Schaivo, asking if the government should have a greater say in a person's death than a spouse.
The audience was encouraged not to react during the debate, which made stretches of the program feel boring -- especially compares to the raucous atmosphere of previous debates.
But the silence also forced consideration of the candidates' words rather than the response they brought to the crowd (still, the audience couldn't help bursting into applause when Paul spoke against covert military action against Cuba).
And the non-NBC faces Reinhard and smith were saved until the debate's final half hour. This critic would have preferred to see them sooner -- along with some pointed queried on Medicare along with the Schaivo and Space Coast questions. (full disclosure: Adam Smith is a pal.)
Still, moderators in this debate did mostly what you expect; avoid big landmines, surprise the candidates here and there and keep the focus on what the guys onstage are saying.
Given the carnival-like nature of so many debates these days, that may be the best you can hope for.