Q&A: FOX News' Brit Hume, Chris Wallace Discuss Their Roles at the Republican Primary Debate

Published May 14, 2007

| FoxNews.com

Tuesday night's First-in-the-South Republican Presidential Candidates Primary Debate at the University of South Carolina's Koger Center will be broadcast by FOX News Channel. FOX News' Washington, D.C., managing editor Brit Hume will moderate the debate and questions will be posed by "FOX News Sunday" anchor Chris Wallace and White House correspondent Wendell Goler.

Conducting a 90-minute debate with 10 candidates is no easy task and requires close attention and a quick response time to keep the flow of the debate running smoothly. Hume and Wallace sat down with FOXNews.com late last week to describe what they expect and hope to achieve during the main event.

Don't forget to watch the Republican presidential candidates debate on FOX News Channel or FOXNews.com Tuesday night at 9 p.m. ET.

Q: So what is your objective as the moderator/panelist?

Brit Hume: The objective of the moderator really is to move things along without being obtrusive, remembering always that we — journalists — are not the story, the candidates are the story, and recognizing also that with 10 of them on the stage there's only so much you can do. And also, to try to devise a format which will get the candidates interested in the audience too.

Chris Wallace: This is a serious process. This is part of the process of the American people getting to know and decide which candidate they are going to vote for, first in the Republican primary and then eventually for president so I think the purpose is seriously to give viewers some insights on information that allows them to make a more informed choice.

Q: So how do you decide which questions go to which candidate?

BH: Some questions will be asked to all of them, on central issues. And other questions, we have to sort of figure out on a news basis or an area of expertise basis or an area where candidates have given emphasis in their platforms or campaigns that are questionable, or where candidates have said things that raise controversy or whatever. So sort of a combination of everybody gets to say something on certain key issues and then you pick it kind of on a news basis beyond that.

CW: We're going to divide it up by subjects. I am going to take some subjects, Wendell is going to take some. Brit is going to take others and I am going to try to become really well versed between now and next Tuesday on where each candidate stands on the issues that I am covering. And as I do every Sunday on "FOX News Sunday" try and ask, you know, the most probing, penetrating questions, but one thing that I am keenly aware of is that this is about the candidates and the voters and while I want to try to probe them so that I can get them off their talking points, it's about the candidates, not me.

Q: How do you prepare?

BH: Well, I am blessed in the sense that the work I do everyday, which sort of steeps me in this stuff, prepares me. You've got to read a lot. You read previous debates. You read what the candidates have said. You read their position papers, you try to familiarize yourself as best you can, what their critical positions are on the main questions.

Q: You've interviewed most if not all of these candidates before. So what is the challenge or the benefit of this forum versus say, "FOX News Sunday" or "Special Report"?

BH: The thing is really governed by the numbers and when you're trying to manage 10 people in 90 minutes, it's a complicated mathematical challenge and it challenges your alertness because you've got to keep track of what a lot of different people said about a lot of different things so that if there is something that screams out for a follow-up, you don't miss it, which is quite possible.

In the meantime, you're keeping an eye on the time, you're keeping an eye on sort of juggling the question of whether everybody is getting a fair shot and then you've also got to be conscious of the substance of what people are saying so that if something leaps out you don't miss it. So it's not easy and it's not like an ordinary interview with one person or two or three. This is ... huge.

CW: Well, obviously the benefit is you've got all 10 of them there. It helps in terms of comparative, comparison shopping. The disadvantage is that you have all 10 of them there and that obviously with 10 candidates giving minute answers in 90 minutes, if you do the math, nobody is going to get asked anything in real detail.

Q: Have you ever done this before?

CW: I've moderated debates but never presidential debates.

BH: Yes. I did it in New Hampshire in 2000 with an early Republican debate, and I did it in Baltimore in '04 with Democrats, the Democratic debate, and in both cases there was a large, a fairly large number of candidates, and in both cases we had the same difficulties we have here. The fact is you can only do so much. This is about them. It's not about us. We can do the best we can, we can hope to be useful and helpful, but this all depends on them, as it should, and people shouldn't get too many big ideas about how much difference a moderator can make. If the candidates are going to be reticent and stick to their talking points, you really can't change that, you can't force it.

Q: How do you plan to or do you have any say in how to control an unruly candidate?

CW: That's what they pay Brit to do. He's got the whip and the chair.

BH: One of the things that I think is one of the least attractive roles that a journalist or a broadcaster plays in a debate is the role of time cop so I am going to try to get out of that. One of the things we have tried in the past is have a distinct clear bell that goes off when the time is up, which says to the audience, the candidate and everybody else, this candidate's time is up and he or she — in the case here, it's all hes — is still talking. Then if the journalist later comes in and says you're time is up, it doesn't seem like the rude and obtrusive interruption by a smart-alecky journalist. The bell has proved very effective in the past. It works. It might not this time but it always has.

Q: Do you have any concerns or fears of something unexpected happening?

CW: Oh I would love something unexpected to happen. You know these things can sometimes be all too predictable and you hope that they will get off their scripts and make news. I thought that Mayor (Rudy) Giuliani made some news in the last debate with a not-very-focused answer on abortion. You hope that days later people will be talking about several of the answers from this debate.

Q: And lastly, this occasion has an audience present. Do you try to involve the audience or what is its function?

CW: As far as I am concerned it's just me and the candidate, well me and my team, my colleagues, and the candidates. The audience is there and I am glad they get the opportunity to watch but I'm not playing to the audience, and to the degree possible, I think I will have my back to them both literally and figuratively.

BH: There's usually an audience present and you always tell them not to applaud, and sometimes they obey and sometimes they don't, and you can't control that very well, and if you keep getting all stuffy about it you look like a jerk. So, you just have to hope for the best on that.

And a little audience participation sometimes enlivens the debate so you know you may warn against it, you may encourage them not to do it, but you're not always sorry that they applaud or boo or hiss or react or laugh or whatever. You always love it when they laugh, that always enlivens the old occasion and sometimes moments in the debates that cause laughter are sometimes the most memorable moments of all.

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