CNN Sets Stage For Final GOP Debate Before Super Tuesday

NEW YORK -- The Republican candidates saw a lot of each other in January, with six debates crammed into a frenetic 19-day stretch. But after leaving the stage in Jacksonville, Fla., Jan. 26, the candidates -- and political press corps -- split up and each campaign followed its own trajectory through states like Nevada, Maine and Michigan.

On Wednesday, the band is back together for the 20th -- and perhaps final -- Republican debate of the 2012 primary.

Washington bureau chief Sam Feist, who's producing CNN's seventh debate this cycle, said the 8 p.m. face-off "comes at an important moment in the campaign" as tight races develop in Arizona and Michigan. And given the lack of debates since January, Feist said "there are a lot of topics that are likely to come up in this debate that, frankly, haven't come up in the other debates."

Feist wasn't about to tip off the candidates about what moderator John King might throw their way, but social issues, which received increased media attention since the Florida debates, are expected to get some play.

It's also possible that former senator Rick Santorum could be asked about his 2008 comments about Satan "attacking the great institutions of America," which had a second life Tuesday thanks to The Drudge Report. When asked if the Satan comments could come up, Feist simply said that "nothing is off the table."

The questions asked during the previous debates this week came under scrutiny from New York University professor Jay Rosen and his students in the Studio 20 program, who studied all 839 of them. The students, working with The Guardian, found that 13 percent of the questions asked involved "campaign strategy and the way the candidates responded to each other's negative ads."

However, they noted that members of debate or online audiences asked zero questions about polls, flip-flops or negative ads, suggesting that journalists may be preoccupied by process-oriented questions that are of less interest to the public.

Feist said he found the study "interesting and valuable," but quibbled with how the questions were categorized. "If you ask a candidate about a comment made in a negative ad, I don’t see that as campaign strategy," Feist said. "I see that as a rare opportunity to have the candidate respond to the negative ads that the public has been inundated with."

But NYU students and The Guardian aren't the only ones questioning the questions.

Editors at the National Review said Wednesday that the Republican National Committee should take over the debate schedule in 2016, arguing that the best moments of the previous debates "came when conservatives and conservative institutions were most involved, such as during the foreign-policy debate co-sponsored by the Heritage Foundation and the American Enterprise Institute."

News executives, at CNN or elsewhere, surely will balk at the idea of allowing the parties to take over the debate schedule and assume editorial control in 2016. However, Feist said he agrees with the National Review when it comes to involving conservatives in Republican debates. In all of its seven debates, CNN worked with a conservative, tea party, or regional Republican co-sponsor, including Heritage and AEI. "We believe that Republican debates are for Republican voters," Feist said.

"Other debates have been pure media debates," he said. "Our primary debates always involve Republican groups."

CNN, which recently canceled its upcoming Georgia debate after a couple of candidates dropped out, has no more planned for this cycle. While there's still a March 19 Oregon debate scheduled, the field could change before then, along with the remaining candidates' willingness to once again hit the debate stage.

"This could be the last debate or it might not be," Feist said. "It entirely depends on where it goes from here. If the candidates deem it in their interest to do additional debates, they’ll do additional debates."

Looking back, Feist said "it's been a fascinating year" and -- as he's done before -- spoke positively about the impact of Republican debates, despite criticism of the packed schedule or the occasional reality show atmosphere.

"I think they're really important to the process," Feist said. "I think they're really valuable. I'm glad CNN could play a role. I'm glad the public had 20 debates to choose from."

Correction: This post originally stated tonight is the 21st debate. It is the 20th.