Candidates Sink Or Swim In Numerous Debates There's nearly a year to go till the 2012 Presidential election and already the Republican field has faced off for at least ten debates since May. That intense schedule has helped boost the campaigns of more polished candidates, while sinking the public perception of those who stumble.

Candidates Sink Or Swim In Numerous Debates

Last Wednesday's Junkie segment on TOTN

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

There's nearly a year to go till the 2012 Presidential election and already the Republican field has faced off for at least ten debates since May. That intense schedule has helped boost the campaigns of more polished candidates, while sinking the public perception of those who stumble.


Ken Rudin, Political Junkie columnist, NPR
John Harwood, CNBC chief Washington correspondent
Alan Schroeder, author, Presidential Debates


This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in New York. The Supreme Court puts health care on the docket for the presidential campaign. The supercommittee can't move off the dime, while Cain and Perry suffer forgettable moments.

It's Wednesday and time for a...

GOVERNOR RICK PERRY: I stepped in it.

CONAN: ...edition of the Political Junkie.

PRESIDENT RONALD REAGAN: There you go again.

VICE PRESIDENT WALTER MONDALE: When I hear your new ideas, I'm reminded of that ad, where's the beef?

SENATOR BARRY GOLDWATER: Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice.

SENATOR LLOYD BENTSEN: Senator, you're no Jack Kennedy.

PRESIDENT RICHARD NIXON: You don't have Nixon to kick around anymore.

SARAH PALIN: Lipstick.

PERRY: Oops.

PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: But I'm the decider.


CONAN: Every Wednesday, Political Junkie Ken Rudin joins us to recap the week in politics. We don't often change the montage, but, oops, became an instant campaign classic. Herman Cain stumbled over Libya. Newt Gingrich introduced his new running mate, Freddie Mac. They joined Mitt Romney and Ron Paul in what amounts to a four-way dead heat in Iowa just seven weeks away. In a few minutes, we'll focus on the effect of all these televised debates, depending on how you count, as many as a dozen thus far and many more to come.

Later in the program, Jaimy Gordon on the year since she won the National Book Award for "Lord of Misrule."

But first, Political Junkie Ken Rudin joins us. I'm in New York City today. He's in Studio 3A, but we still begin with a trivia question. Hey, Ken.

KEN RUDIN, BYLINE: Hi, Neal. And, by the way, they would not let me fit in your seat to do this show.

CONAN: And a good thing, too.

RUDIN: There's police blotter all over, keeping me away from there. By the way, one thing about the Junkie montage, our producer, Sarah Handel, said that now we have four Democrats and five Republicans in the montage, but the Democrats still get 14 seconds of air time and the Republicans get six. So just to let you know that we're on top of this thing.

And also, I had a little contest on Facebook for people to guess the new addition to the montage. Andy Hall of Sturgeon Bay, Wisconsin was the first person to predict, oops, as the answer.

CONAN: Oops. OK.

RUDIN: OK. So the trivia question is, obviously the whole story - it seems to be the whole story - in the Republican battle is debates and it's a debate question. Who was the first female panelist for a presidential candidate debate?

CONAN: If you think you know the answer to this week's trivia question and, again, the first female panelist on a presidential candidate debate, give us a call. 800-989-8255. Email is You can also join the conversation on our website. Go to and click on TALK OF THE NATION.

And we mentioned, oops, but it wasn't just Rick Perry who had a difficult moment this week.

RUDIN: That's true. But you know something? Oops was only a week ago. It was the night of our last program. Obviously, they couldn't do it before we went on the air last week, but that was only a week ago and it just seems remarkable how that gap has really changed everybody's perception about the race, although Rick Perry was kind of in a downward slide for the longest time, anyway, with previous debate flubs.

But then we had this event. Herman Cain was sitting for an interview with the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. This is a video of a video interview and, of course, it's gone viral on the internet, as it usually does. But he was asked, basically, a seemingly innocuous question about he differs or, you know, what's his take on President Obama's handling of the situation in Libya and...

CONAN: And, Ken, this is truly a painful moment. We're just going to play a short - actually, we played a little bit in the billboard, but here's a short excerpt of what Herman Cain told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel:

HERMAN CAIN: I do not agree with the way he handled it for the following reason - no, that's a different one.


CONAN: And you could have played that any number of ways with an embarrassing long 10 second silences before he stammered and got the answer wrong.

RUDIN: The problem with this whole thing is that everybody's talking about the excitement of somebody new and somebody, you know, unscripted and unprogrammed, but he also seems unprepared. And for all of the criticisms about Herman Cain the last couple of weeks, the number of women who have discussed about sexual harassment charges, or these accusations against him and his complete unfamiliarity and we kind of saw this in Saturday night's debate, the foreign policy debate on foreign policy issues.

Herman Cain's numbers have declined. Now, his unfavorables are up, but he's still among the leaders, believe it or not, with 48 days to go before Iowa.

CONAN: And that is an interesting poll. Now, there are four candidates within spitting distance of one another and they may get to that in the next debate. And that is - we mentioned Herman Cain. It is Mitt Romney, who's been at or near the top all the way. Ron Paul is in these top group of four, and Newt Gingrich.

RUDIN: Well, you know something? I mean, you know, here's the problem about having such a long pre-presidential campaign season and that is before the voters even get a chance to do it, but we smarty-pants analysts all wrote off Newt Gingrich early in the year when, basically, his entire staff quit en mass. His fundraising numbers were really, really down. He was basically an asterisk in the poll and, actually, a similar thing happened to John McCain in 2007 when his staff quit and we said he was finished, too. And, of course, that showed how much we knew.

But the thing about Newt Gingrich is that he was always the smartest guy in the class. Just ask him. He'll tell you he is the smartest guy in the class, but he does have a very good debating style. Now, some people think it's a little condescending. Some people think it's a little mean the way he'll attack the moderators like, what a stupid you asked, or he'll roll his eyes at the absurdity. How dare you ask me such a question like that? But for the most part, his answers have been solid. They're not critical of his opponents. He's more critical of President Obama and the media, than he is on the fellow Republicans.

And it seems to be a winning thing. And so he doesn't have the money, he doesn't have the campaign staff, but again, since we've had 9,463 debates this year and he usually does very well in them.

CONAN: And now, he's going to find himself, though, suddenly on the defensive after it's come out that he's been on the payroll of Freddie Mac. Not just on the payroll, but for well over a million dollars over the past 10 years.

RUDIN: Right. That's a report from Bloomberg News that came out that between $1.6 million and $1.8 million he's taken from Freddie Mac since he left the speakership after the 1998 disastrous - even though the Republicans kept control of the House, but it was a disaster for the Republicans and Newt Gingrich.

So he took a $1.5 million from Freddie Mac and, again, this is somebody who hates the ways of Washington and hates the lobbyists of Washington. Of course, he says he wasn't a lobbyist. He was a consultant.

CONAN: An historian, he likes to call it.

RUDIN: An historian. Well, you know - yeah. Well, I think we have to revise some of that history a little bit when we're talking about Newt Gingrich. And you knew this was going to happen. The reason nobody was talking about all these things about Newt Gingrich; his marriages, his flip-flops on Libya. For example, he was for the no-fly zone and then he was against the no-fly zone when Obama did it. But we didn't talk about it because he was inconsequential.

And now that the anybody-but-Mitt-Romney crowd has now focused on Newt Gingrich now that Herman Cain may be down and Rick Perry certainly is down, there will be, obviously, more stuff about Newt Gingrich coming up.

CONAN: We have some people on the line who think they know the answer to this week's trivia question. And that is the first female panelist to ask questions at a presidential candidates' debate. Give us a call. 800-989-8255. Email us,

And we'll begin with Pete. And Pete's with us from Inverness in Florida.

PETE: I would like to guess Cokie Roberts.

CONAN: Cokie Roberts of ABC and National Public Radio.

RUDIN: Well, Cokie Roberts was not one of those. Matter of fact, I don't believe Cokie was ever on a debate panel herself, but Cokie Roberts is not the right answer.

CONAN: Thanks very...

PETE: Thanks. Love the show.

CONAN: Thanks very much, Pete. Let's see if we can go next to - this is Alex. Alex with us from Oklahoma.

ALEX: My guess is the money honey, Maria Bartiromo.

CONAN: Just made her recent debut as a panelist on the...

RUDIN: Right, right. She was part of the CNBC debate last Wednesday in Michigan, but that was the first time she was ever on a debate panel, so it would not be Maria Bartiromo by the Ramones.

CONAN: And by the way, we're going to have her partner on, John Harwood, a little bit later in the broadcast to talk about debates, but Alex, thanks very much for the call.

Let's go next to - this is Debra. Debra with us from Chanhassen in Minnesota.

DEBRA: Hi, guys. My guess, Nancy Dickerson.

CONAN: Nancy Dickerson. Oh, boy, that goes back.

RUDIN: Well, Nancy Dickerson is a great guess and, actually, if I didn't know the answer, that would have been my guess, too. But as it turns out, Nancy Dickerson also never appeared on a presidential debate. I think most of her reporting was mostly in the Kennedy-Johnson years and, of course, after the 1960 debates, there weren't debates during those years. But not Nancy Dickerson. Good guess, though.

DEBRA: Oops.

CONAN: Thanks very much, Debra.

RUDIN: Did I hear an, oops, there?

CONAN: She did give us an oops. Let's go next to - this is Jonathan. And Jonathan is with us from Stillwater in Minnesota.

JONATHAN: Yeah, I am. But I went to the same junior high school as Ken, McCombs Junior High School.

RUDIN: Oh, my God, that was in the 1980s. Don't say the year.

JONATHAN: Well, no, no. I'm older than you.

RUDIN: OK. Whew.

JONATHAN: So you're OK. Elizabeth Drew. It was in New York.


RUDIN: I think that's the correct answer. McCombs Junior High School is the correct answer.

CONAN: And it's a great damn park, but anyway, moving right along.

JONATHAN: Elizabeth Drew.

RUDIN: Elizabeth Drew is the correct answer. Ding, ding, ding. I've heard a lot of other answers. Questions that there was Carol Simpson, there was - I'm trying to think other women - Ann Compton. But, anyway, Elizabeth Drew was one of the debate panelists in 1976, Carter versus Ford. We also have an email from Carrie Dupler(ph) of Santa Rosa, California, also named Elizabeth Drew.

CONAN: So two Political Junkie No Prize t-shirts this week. We're going to put you on hold, Jonathan, and collect your particulars and we'll send you one of those fabulous t-shirts in exchange for your promise of a digital picture of yourself wearing it to be...

JONATHAN: I will, but I don't have a McCombs Junior High School t-shirt.


CONAN: Well, thanks very much and congratulations, Jonathan.

JONATHAN: Thank you.

CONAN: All right. We managed to find the right button even here in the New York bureau. In the meantime, there is some other news.

The Supreme Court this week put health care squarely on the agenda for the presidential campaign. They're going to be debating President Obama's signature legislative accomplishment and there's going to be a decision on this come June.

RUDIN: That's exactly right. The middle of the presidential campaign and both sides, both the side that feels that the Obamacare or whatever you want to call the health care bill, a program that President Obama and the Congress passed, even the side that thinks it's unconstitutional and the Obama side that thinks it's absolutely constitutional - both sides think they're going to be right, but again, this will come in the middle of the campaign. The arguments will start in March. A decision will come in June and it's anybody's guess what they'll decide, but it certainly will shake up the campaign.

CONAN: And we should note something we've talked about before. The recall in Wisconsin underway. Governor Scott Walker now has served long enough to be eligible to be recalled. So are some other Republican state senators, so there's going to be a campaign to collect signatures that has just gotten underway.

But in Arizona - well, it's great to hear. Representative Gabrielle Giffords, shot almost a year ago, has finally been talking with the media, gave an interview and had a message for her constituents.

REPRESENTATIVE GABRIELLE GIFFORDS: I want to go back to work. Representing Arizona is my honor.

CONAN: And, Ken, it's great to hear Gabby Giffords talking again.

RUDIN: You know, in such a horrific story, as she was shot on January 8th, it pierced the left side of her brain, shot in the head. It was just an awful, awful time. Six other people were killed. Thirteen people were badly hurt. She has still not come back to Washington to vote. There's still no discussion about whether she's running for reelection again in 2012. That is not clear, but the fact that she's still able to talk to us is a great achievement.

CONAN: If she's going to run, she does not have to file her paperwork, I don't believe, until May.

Anyway, it's Political Junkie Day. Ken Rudin here with us, as always. Up next, the politics of debates. John Harwood, who moderated the GOP debate a week ago will join us. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.


CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan, this week in New York City. Ken Rudin, our Political Junkie, is back in Studio 3A in Washington. Neither of us, of course, has ever flubbed a line or put our foot in our mouth in a live national broadcast. Well, maybe Ken did, but never on a Wednesday.

In a moment, we'll talk about the flurry of GOP debates in recent months; the good exchanges, the bad, and how they've changed the campaign for president.

But, Ken, a ScuttleButton puzzle posted today.

RUDIN: That's true, but we have a winner from last week's. There was a Skip Bafalis, former congressman from Florida button. There was also a Matty Alou baseball card that...

CONAN: The late Matty Alou.

RUDIN: That's right. He just died last week. Anyway, when you add the Skip Bafalis, you have Matty Alou in between. There was another button. You have a Skip to My Lou puzzle and Ann Brekke of Chicago was the big winner.

CONAN: Well, you can find the ScuttleButton and Ken's latest Political Junkie column at So far, there's been a Twitter debate, a Tea Party debate, a debate on the economy, a foreign policy debate. I think there was a commander in chief debate, in fact, and maybe eight others, depending on how you count.

Just under a year from the 2012 presidential election, they're just getting warmed up. How have all these debates affected the campaign? Give us a call. 800-989-8255. Email us, You can also join the conversation at our website. Go to Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

It was Rick Perry who stole the show at the CNBC debate a week ago with this exchange.

PERRY: It's three agencies of government when I get there that are gone: Commerce, Education and the - what's the third one there? Let's see.

MARIA BARTIROMO: Give me five.

PERRY: Oh, five? Okay. So Commerce, Education and the...


PERRY: EPA. There you go.

JOHN HARWOOD: Seriously? Is EPA one you were talking about or...

PERRY: No, sir. No, sir. We were talking about the agencies of government. The EPA needs to be rebuilt. There's no doubt about that.

HARWOOD: But you can't name the third one?

PERRY: The third agency of government I would do away with. The Education, the Commerce and - let's see.

ROMNEY: Oh, my.

PERRY: I can't. The third one. I can't. Sorry. Oops.

CONAN: Rick Perry responding to CNBC's John Harwood, who moderated that debate. John Harwood is CNBC's chief Washington correspondent. He's covered presidential campaigns for decades and joins us now by phone from New Orleans. Nice to have you with us today.

HARWOOD: Hi, Neal.

CONAN: And I wanted to ask you, were you, as he stumbled around there, tempted to say, well, let's go to another question?

HARWOOD: Well, we almost did. You know, it's one of those things. When you have a lot of candidates on the stage and multiple people from our end at CNBC poised to ask questions, the management of the microphone is kind of difficult and when the moment, as you could hear in that clip, sort of drifted into humor and there was laughter and Perry was smiling and Mitt Romney said, EPA, and it was unclear at that moment whether, in fact, that was the agency.

And Maria Bartiromo, my colleague, was about to go to another question and then a producer in our production truck - you know, these people never get seen by the public, but they play a huge role in having a successful production - yelled in my ear, don't stop, because he was aware that Perry had not answered the question. And so that's when I said, seriously? Is the EPA the one? And when he acknowledged, no, the natural follow-up was, OK. What is it? Can you remember it? And he couldn't. Then it, you know, produced that remarkable moment.

CONAN: And, for good or ill, his campaign was in trouble before that, but that moment may be remembered as the death of the 2012 Perry campaign.

HARWOOD: Yeah. I don't know if it's the death or, you know, one more blow to a campaign that was struggling, but the relevant point, though, Neal, is that one of the reasons his campaign was struggling was because of prior debate performances.

So it is, without a doubt, correct that the debate season this fall has shaped the campaign in a way that exceeds any campaign in my memory and I think that's partly because many of the Republicans running are running kind of one-man-band campaigns. They don't have big organizations, so they're not contesting on the ground in Iowa and New Hampshire the way past traditional kind of leading candidates have done. These are people whose campaigns have largely existed on the debates and that's where they rise or fall.

CONAN: And debates - another way to think of them is free air time.

HARWOOD: Absolutely, free air time. If you don't have money for television commercials, what better way to communicate with your audience, especially the most politically interested and active people in your party, than on a televised debate? That's who the viewers are.

And that's how Herman Cain has made such a positive impression on so many people. It's why Newt Gingrich, who has gained altitude in recent days, skirmishing with moderators and sort of displaying the experience that he's had as a leading figure in American politics, although we had a moment in the last debate that is now reflecting the phenomenon we're talking about, coming back to bite him. Because I asked him about the $300,000 he got from Freddie Mac as a consultant. And now it's come out today that he, in fact, got a lot more than $300,000. And so, in yet another way, that debate is having a life beyond the two hours last Wednesday night.


RUDIN: John, you know, it's not that you asked a gotcha question. I mean, Hal Bruno, my former boss at ABC who just passed away last week - and he's the one who asked, you know, Admiral Stockdale, your opening statement, sir? And he said, who am I and why am I here? And that, you know, caused another kerfuffle back in 1992.

HARWOOD: I remember it well.

RUDIN: But we talk about all the candidates preparing for debates and it seems like the debates have taken over this entire campaign, but obviously, you, the moderators, the panelists - they prepare, too. And there's always questions about bias and the right question and which candidate to address it to.

How much preparation do you have to go through in preparation for this debate?

HARWOOD: We did a lot of homework. We had a lot of conference calls and meetings. At CNBC, because we have a heavy focus on business and financial markets, our headquarters is in greater New York. You know, we had different perspectives from different people participating in the debate, a lot of debate over what's an appropriate question to ask and who to ask it to. And also how much time to spend on the people who appear to be most likely to win the nomination, as compared to those who are benefiting from the free air time, but don't really have much of a chance.

You promise fairness to the candidates, but not equal time, and so we had to figure out, how much is it about Romney? How much is it about Romney and Perry? How much it's about Cain, since he's been rising in the polls and dogged by a controversy, the sexual harassment issue that had nothing to do with the subject of our debate. So we had to figure out how to manage that, as well.

CONAN: And got some boos when your partner asked about it.

HARWOOD: We were not surprised by that. Maria and I had addressed a breakfast of Michigan Republicans that morning and were asked whether or not we were going to raise that issue and we didn't say for sure one way or the other, but we said, you can't really avoid something that's been so much in the news. We got booed at that point. So, you know, you're not going to please everybody.

And, of course, when you do a primary debate, your audience in the hall is going to be partisans of the Democrats or Republicans, as the case may be, whoever's debating. And you know that, if you ask something that's unfriendly to a popular figure, that there's the potential for that negative reaction. We've seen audience reactions at earlier debates on issues like the death penalty and gay rights make themselves part of the story, too.

CONAN: John Harwood is with us, CNBC's chief Washington correspondent, and among those who moderated a presidential debate this year. Of course, it seems like everybody has. There's been a lot of debates.

HARWOOD: Right. Good company.

CONAN: Alan Schroeder joins us now. He wrote the book, "Presidential Debates: 50 Years of High-Risk TV," and joins us from Northeastern University in Boston, where he's a professor of journalism. He also deserves a medal of sorts for, I think, having watched every single one of the debates this year.

ALAN SCHROEDER: Absolutely, absolutely. Wouldn't miss them.

CONAN: Thanks very much for joining us. There are moments we all remember, but there is more debates than ever. What is the cumulative effect, do you think?

SCHROEDER: Well, I think the cumulative effect, as John just mentioned, is that it really has kind of jump-started this campaign a little bit early. It's also created space for people who are nontraditional politicians to become part of the process.

But I do want to take issue with one thing you just said - is the number of debates is excessive? I went back and looked at the roster for 2004...

CONAN: I didn't say excessive. I just said a lot of them.

SCHROEDER: A lot of them, but no more than in the past. In 2004 and 2008, we were at exactly the same point at the end of November in terms of the total number of debates as we are right now. It just seems like a lot.

RUDIN: Well, can I just jump in for one thing? Alan, while I'm thinking about that, in 2008, there were 19 Republican debates. There have been 11 so far this year and there are 14 more scheduled, so that's like 25, 26 debates, so all told, 2012 will break all the records.

SCHROEDER: Yeah. It will if they all go through. Of course, that's the other thing. A lot of times, debates get scheduled and planned and then don't actually come to fruition.

CONAN: And as we've seen the moment, the campaign seems to - as John mentioned earlier, is being defined by these debates.

SCHROEDER: Well, absolutely. And I think that's not such a bad thing. I mean, I would argue that these debates are doing what debates are supposed to do, which is give us a glimpse into both the personalities and the positions of the candidates and in a way that allows for kind of an extensive consideration because it's happening over a long period of time, and it's involving a lot of people. So it's a winnowing process. It hasn't winnowed much yet, but it will soon. And I think the debates have been extremely valuable in that regard.

CONAN: Ask Tim Pawlenty. But Ken, one of the things, the constant criticisms of American campaigns, especially for higher office, is that you can't do it unless you've got a lot of money and an established organization. That seems to be turning on its head.

RUDIN: That's exactly right. I mean, in the old - I was just saying the same thing, in the old days, if you have the boots on the ground, the organization in states like Iowa, New Hampshire, that was the key. But if you're a great debater, if you're a Newt Gingrich, as I said, the smartest guy in the room, you could just stand up there and just, you know, woo the audiences. And there's something very interesting, Alan, about this particularly - particular cycle, and that it seems like a soap opera, like, remember, friends, last week we heard Herman say this, and Rick Perry said this. What will he do this week? Like, we're glued to it. It's always like you can't miss it because you're afraid you'll miss something exciting.

SCHROEDER: Yeah. Absolutely. I think that's exactly right. It is the miniseries effect, and it is the reality television effect, and it gets very addictive. And I think these audiences of four, five million people doesn't seem like a lot, but for a cable news timeslot, that's a huge audience. And I think the reason is that people are getting sort of suckered into the - not suckered into, sucked into the whole thing as, you know, just a cumulative effect of a lot of debates.

CONAN: Let's get a caller in on the conversation. John's on with us from Charlottesville in Virginia.

JOHN: Actually, you guys just took - stole my thunder. That's how I feel. The debates have kind of taken on a reality TV show feel to them. I feel like people are talking more about soundbites and gaffes than the actual issues. And I almost feel like I'm going to be prompted to text who I wanted to vote off at the end of these debates. It's amazing.

CONAN: You can only vote Tim Pawlenty once.


JOHN: Yeah, right. I feel like it's taken a completely different turn this time around, and I'm not sure I'm a fan of it.

CONAN: All right. Well, thanks very much for the call, John. Let's see if we go next to - this is Caleb. Caleb with us from Jamaica Plain in Massachusetts.

CALEB: Yes. Hi. Two quick comments. One, I actually have a very - I'm from a liberal left progressive perspective, I have a very positive impression of the structure of the Republican primary debates because I think that there's a significant democratization effect of precisely those types of candidates that wouldn't be covered by the, you know, corporate interests behind the major media outlets and also who don't have the same level - equal level of funding. So I think that's important.

I think the number actually gives them, the public, ample time to look at these ways that each candidate is responding to the issues in text format after the debates, so the kind of archived effect presents a lot more raw material for analysis than a very limited controlled process. And the second comment I want to make is that I don't know who your masters at the Brookings Institute are, whoever is putting this gag order, but I think the lack of coverage of Ron Paul's candidacy, who I differ from in many, many respects...

CONAN: And did you hear him on Political Junkie about a month ago?

CALEB: need to address the Ron Paul show in the polls. His winning a number of these primary things. I don't support him for many reasons, but I do support some of his perspective. And it's just a - it's an obvious bias, some kind of gag order maybe originates - I don't know the politics of it, but maybe you could expound on the obscene lack of coverage of his presence and performance in the polls...

CONAN: Caleb, again, I will just refer you to the broadcast interview with Ron Paul that we had on this program – what, about five, six weeks ago, within the last month and a half, in any case. But thanks very much for the comment. You're listening to Political Junkie on TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. Ken, I'm sorry.

RUDIN: Neal, I'm sorry. When we're sitting not across from each other, it's difficult. Can I just address the first two callers because there's something that they have in common. The first guy said that we focus too much on gaffes and not about substance, and the second guy talks about, you know, the Brookings Institute, our masters, keep us from talking about Ron Paul. And then I have this question for John Harwood. John, on - there was another debate on Saturday night that not many people watched because it was Saturday night.

But it was pretty instructive to me, interesting to me that it was about foreign policy, and basically they're talking about - the candidates were talking about, well, you know, let's wipe out Iran, let's attack Iran if they build a nuclear weapon or let's, you know, let's approve waterboarding. And that was pretty instructive. And I think that didn't get much attention.

HARWOOD: That's true. And Ron Paul got very little airtime in that debate and was complaining about it afterwards.

RUDIN: On both – on both the military attack and on waterboarding.


CONAN: And took different positions on both.

RUDIN: Yeah.

HARWOOD: Exactly. And I think one of the reasons for that is I'm imagining from the perspective of my colleagues at CBS and National Journal, is that Ron Paul, for all intents and purposes, is not a Republican, especially on those issues, and for that reason I think people accurately see him - this is one way of being responsive to the caller's question, why doesn't Ron Paul get covered more, is because in the estimation of most people who follow this process, his chances of winning the Republican nomination are essentially nil.

And if that's the case, then you've got to wonder, like, is your debate most usefully spent by voters on candidates with a greater chance to win. We have - during our debate, we had people, a team of people in our production truck tracking the amount of airtime that each candidate got and using that to guide us to make sure that we didn't leave anybody too short. Rick Santorum got the least at five and a half minutes. Mitt Romney got almost 10 minutes. And that to some degree reflects their prospects in the race. You focus on the people with a greater chance.

Ron Paul has run as a libertarian for president. He has said he might not support the Republican nominee. Yes, he has a respectable chunk in the polls, but I think his chances of building on that are quite small and that influences how reporters view him.

CONAN: One other question about debate preparation - we have seen in other debates, including this year and in other years, of course, some questions that are really fluff. It's the equivalent of the boxers-or-briefs question. Do those come up in your production meeting, and did you think about that at all?

HARWOOD: Yes. We had a - depending on how the time worked out for the earlier questions, we had a round of short-answer questions designed to be different. One of the reasons people do those is A) to be honest, some of the political stuff that you and me and Ken spend our days talking about are boring to many average viewers, and so we're trying to find something relatable; B) we're trying to get something that they might not have scripted, so that we see how they react in the moment, even if something is not a serious public policy issue.

But in fact, in our debate we had so much conversation that seemed to go to the core of the economic issue that we were exploring that we ended up consuming the time without going to those fluffier questions.

CONAN: John Harwood, thanks very much and congratulations.

HARWOOD: My pleasure. Thanks so much.

CONAN: John Harwood, CNBC's chief Washington correspondent, he joined us on the phone from New Orleans. Our thanks as well to Alan Schroeder, who joined us from Northeastern University. Ken's back next Wednesday. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

Copyright © 2011 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.