CNN Turns To National Security, Foreign Policy In Rare D.C. Debate

NEW YORK -- Will 2011 be remembered as the "year of the debate?"

That's how CNN anchor Wolf Blitzer recently described the Republican race while seated in his Washington D.C. office, just a few minutes after he and his producers ran through potential questions for -- you guessed it -- another primary debate.

While pundits may bemoan the "reality TV" primary and resulting drop in old-fashioned retail politicking across Iowa's cornfields, the increased ratings and clicks show that millions are interested enough to keep tuning in. "People are watching and I think these debates have had a significant impact on attitudes toward these Republican candidates," Blitzer said.

Sam Feist, CNN's Washington bureau chief and senior vice president, unsurprisingly doesn't think there have been too many debates. He contends that each builds on the last to provide as much information as possible to Republican primary voters. "There may be questions that naturally follow from the last debate that we can explore in the next debate," Feist said. "So, in many ways, one debate is a continuation of the last debate."

Still, network executives don't want political junkies to feel like its "Groundhog Day." Fortunately for CNN, Tuesday night's debate will divert from the previous 11 network debates in both content and location.

Blitzer, for one, is expected to keep the eight GOP candidates focused primarily on national security and foreign policy -- both of which have been trumped this year by domestic issues in all but the CBS/National Journal debate. And to help drill down where the candidates stand, CNN has teamed up with two prominent conservative think tanks, the American Enterprise Institute and Heritage Foundation.

"We are talking to AEI and Heritage every day about questions," Feist said. "It really is a partnership between the three organizations. In many ways, they are the foreign policy experts, so they are very much helping to drive the content of the debate."

AEI and Heritage executives, in interviews, emphasized the importance of devoting more time in the primary process to challenging the candidates on national security and foreign policy.

Danielle Pletka, AEI's vice president for foreign and defense studies, said those issues have "really taken a backseat" in the domestic-focused election. "At the end of the day, the safety and the well-being of the American people is something that is an incredibly burdensome responsibility and we need to know as much as we possibly can that these men and women think on these issues."

Mike Gonzalez, vice president of communications at Heritage, agreed, saying that "when we choose who will be our president, obviously, foreign policy and national defense are issues that should be kept in mind by the voters."

In preparing for the debate, both Heritage and AEI came up with questions and put together a guest list of Republican foreign policy experts, former cabinet officials, and Congressional staffers who'll fill Washington D.C.'s historic DAR Convention Hall. CNN, continuing a format used in previous debates, will have its moderator call on audience members for questions and then facilitate the discussion onstage through follow-ups. But unlike a CNN debate in, say, New Hampshire, Washington wonks will get more airtime than early primary state voters.

That's unusual in the primary process. Just one of over two dozen televised debates in 2008 took place in Washington D.C.

Feist recalled back-to-back Republican and Democratic debates at the Kennedy Center in Oct. 1987 , but said its "very rare that in the nation's capital, there's a debate." Not to mention that this one will take place just "a stone's throw from the White House."

"One of them hopes to live a block from here. How do you like the neighborhood?" Feist said, chuckling. "This is an opportunity to explore the neighborhood a little bit to see if it fits them well."

Gonzalez also mentioned the great symbolism of debating these issues in the city "where foreign policy is made."

Given the influence of AEI and Heritage on Republican policymaking, candidates have understandably looked to scholars at both D.C.-based think tanks when crafting their own foreign policy positions. Mitt Romney, for one, lists five advisers from AEI and Heritage on his campaign website.

Blitzer will not be calling on anyone from the two think tanks who has advised a candidate on stage. Pletka said she built a "firewall between those who are involved with campaigns and those who are involved with the debates. Period. End of story."

While AEI and Heritage both formed questions, CNN is maintaining editorial control and will pick which ones to ask. And the job of moderating still falls to Blitzer, who described being fortunate enough to represent millions of Americans in asking the candidates where they stand on major global issues.

"One of these guys wants to be commander-in-chief and is going to have to deal with national security and foreign policy," Blitzer said, "and the American public will want to make sure that person is ready to take charge on day one."