Tonight, ABC's Charlie Gibson will moderate his first — and his second — debate of this election season. And what a timeslot he has: Smack dab between the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary, providing a potential make-or-break moment for each candidate in the middle of the shortest-ever refractory period in the history of primary seasons.
Gibson told Howie Kurtz that his plan was to "put a question on the table, and to the extent that I can, I'm going to disappear...It's not about me. It's not about showing I can ask a clever question. It's about them." ABC's plan is to have the candidates seated in a semicircle — instead of "Balkanized" at a podium — to foster a different sort of discussion, one with less emphasis on time limits and more on action-reaction discussion between the candidates — which, after the winnowing of Iowa (and the participation edict of ABC) will occur between far fewer candidates.
Sounds great, but whatever the format, as moderator it will fall to Gibson to make this debate count. Debates can be milquetoast-y affairs, as was the Des Moines Register debate, or feisty and newsy, as was the Philadelphia debate. That was probably the most volatile debate, wherein Brian Williams and Tim Russert gotcha'd Hillary Clinton over driver's licenses, and brought up the UFO meme that caught both Richardson as well as Kucinich.
That was the turning point, the moment when Clinton's candidacy tipped from "inevitability" into "vulnerability," and the justification was, well, she was the frontrunner, and when you're the frontrunner that's when you open yourself up to intensified scrutiny. Tomorrow night, Gibson will have two front-runners — Huckbee and Obama, two front-runners who have both had a pretty easy ride so far in the media. Will he ask them tough questions, maybe uncomfortable questions? When Gibson had Bush in front of him for his Camp David interview this Thanksgiving, he asked him about the surge this way:
Let me turn to Iraq. You took a lot of doubting and rather skeptical questions. I'll give you a chance to crow, do you want to say 'I told you so?'
Not exactly holding the Commander in Chief accountable there, was he? Gibson can do better, and he'll have to if he wants tomorrow night to mean something. It may not be about showing you can ask a clever question, but asking a couple couldn't hurt.