Nation Endures Marathon Debate Schedule

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Republican and Democratic presidential hopefuls have logged a total 23 debates so far, with pundits asking the same questions and getting the same rehearsed answers. Political reporter Jill Zuckman talks about debate fatigue and whether the marathon schedule is changing anyone's opinion of the candidates.

PESCA: Well, tonight in Iowa, Republicans will gather for a forum. Not that many Republicans, just Misters McCain and Huckabee, I believe. When Democrats gathered in the same forum to discuss health care, that was an actual debate. This is more of a discussion. But you know what? You can't really fault the candidates for not showing up, because they have been going through debate after televised debate. The Republicans had one last Sunday. The Democrats debate next week - sadly, not dressed in Halloween garb. And with all this yack yack yacking, one thing is clear: You can have a lot of candidates on a stage, you could call it a debate, it doesn't mean anything will actually get said.

(Soundbite of laughter)

PESCA: Jill Zuckman, national political correspondent for the Chicago Tribune.

How are you, Jill?

Ms. JILL ZUCKMAN (National Political Correspondent, Chicago Tribune): I'm good. How are you?

PESCA: Jill, a couple of quick questions, yes or no answer. Jill, do you love democracy?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. ZUCKMAN: Yes, I do.

PESCA: Jill, do you love politics and policies?

Ms. ZUCKMAN: I love politics.

PESCA: And so Jill, given this, and I agree with you there, what do you think of these debates?

Ms. ZUCKMAN: I think they're a bit of a snooze. And even though it's my job to write about politics, I'm kind of exhausted from all these debates. And if you think that I'm exhausted and you're exhausted, think how the candidates feel. They don't want to go to as many of these debates as they're having anymore than we want to watch all of them.

PESCA: Yeah, but they always get a glass of water during the debates, and I personally feel parched.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. ZUCKMAN: Well, you could have a beer during these debates, because you're not standing on the stage.

PESCA: Yeah. I'm going to need a couple to get through them. And it's not -well, who should we blame for these debates being lame? I have a theory about that, but I want to hear yours.

Ms. ZUCKMAN: Well, it - some of the candidates have tried to put their foot down and said, look, we're not going to every single one of these. But it's really hard, because what if the Des Moines Register wants to hold a debate? Do you blow off the biggest newspaper in the state of Iowa that's going to endorse a candidate? I mean, if you want their endorsement, you've got to go.

And the same is true in New Hampshire. Let's say the New Hampshire Democratic Party wants to hold the debate. If you're a Democrat, you really can't skip that, because then you're dissing the entire state of New Hampshire. So they get caught in this problem because there are groups that are important to the candidates that say, oh, I really want to do this, and it's hard to turn them down.

PESCA: But as far as the content of the debates themselves, I just find the questions really predictable - the same questions over and over again, and so many of the same canned sound bites over and over again. So I'm going to blame you and me, Jill, or the class that we belong to. I blame the media.

Ms. ZUCKMAN: Because we all want - because we expect the candidates to stay on message, and we need them to stay on message, otherwise we don't deliver their message for them.

PESCA: Because we're so - it seems to me that we're - we in the media, the people who are asked to ask these questions, are so afraid of mixing it up.

STEWART: Well, that's why the YouTube debate was actually interesting. I like a snowman asking a question about global warming.

(Soundbite of laughter)

PESCA: Is that fair criticism, Jill?

Ms. ZUCKMAN: When you get real people in there, it can get a little more unpredictable, and that's fun.

PESCA: I think that, you know, when there are two candidates, when there's one Republican and one Democrat, what happens when they negotiate the debate parameters is they'll have this high-level pow wow, and they'll come out with a 48-page document or some treatise, and it will govern everything from if there's going to be a footstool to how many questions are asked to the length of the rebuttal.

But now, when things are so wide open, I think there's a real opportunity for the media not to allow itself to be dictated to, and they can't, if they wanted to, ask different kinds of questions, do it in unusual formats. They just seem not to be taking that opportunity, and I want to know from your perspective why not.

Ms. ZUCKMAN: Well, you know what? I don't even think you can call it a debate when you've got 10 different candidates standing on the stage. How is that a debate? I think a debate is really with two people mixing it up with each other. I think what you've got here is a bunch of people who sort of recite what they want to say on the key issues of the day. And you're right. The questions are - I mean, it's Iraq, Iraq, Iraq, a little Iran and maybe a health care question.

STEWART: Yes, throw in a health care elbow. Hey, so - as you were there watching the debates and you're reporting on them, Jill, what is the question that you're murmuring under your breath, just ask it, just ask it?

Ms. ZUCKMAN: You know, I - it's not that I'm wanting a specific question to be asked. What I'm looking for is a candidate to throw a punch. I'm desperate for that, because when you get conflict, you get a good story.

PESCA: I would like…

Ms. ZUCKMAN: If you don't have that, forget it.

PESCA: There are a couple of questions I'd like asked. I'd like someone to talk about airport security, right? How come no one has said why we're all waiting on lines in the airport? I'd like someone to ask Rudy Giuliani, hey, Rudy, why haven't you ever visited Iraq? I would ask Hillary Clinton, give me an example of an unpopular stance you've taken on a defense issue. I think there are a lot of questions out there that haven't been asked. It's frustrating for me.

Ms. ZUCKMAN: I like the airport questions. I think everybody can relate to that.

STEWART: Do you know who's on that?

PESCA: I think the candidates…

STEWART: Huckabee is on that.

PESCA: Oh, suck Huckabee.

(Soundbite of laughter)

STEWART: Huckabee is all about dealing with the airports more than (unintelligible).

PESCA: Because he's flying commercial.

(Soundbite of laughter)

PESCA: That's the kickoff.

(Soundbite of laughter)

PESCA: He can afford the private jets.

Ms. ZUCKMAN: Oh, you are so right about that.

PESCA: What do you think - is it going to be winnowed down naturally as candidates - Brownback drops out? That means everyone gets 12 seconds more of allotted time or however the math works out.

Ms. ZUCKMAN: Yeah.

PESCA: Is it going - is it getting - going to get better or going to get worse, Jill?

Ms. ZUCKMAN: I think we have to applaud NBC, because they have worked hard to winnow down the number of people standing on the stage. They got Gravel booted from the next Democratic debate and - who else? They've been gunning for Kucinich, but DNC won't stand for it. I mean, it would nice to see these things happen with the debate sponsors…

PESCA: Yeah.

Ms. ZUCKMAN: But I - we may have to wait for the very first caucus or primary before we lose a few people.

PESCA: Jill Zuckman, national political correspondent for the Chicago Tribune. Thanks a lot, Jill.

Ms. ZUCKMAN: You're welcome.

STEWART: Coming up on THE BRYANT PARK PROJECT, more of our series about nuclear energy, what to do with all the waste, as well as The Most. That's all coming up. Stick around.

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