Nobody was happier to see John Edwards drop out of the presidential race last week than CNN. That's because it set up what many Americans—and CNN—wanted to see last Thursday: a one-on-one debate between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama.
And while the debate didn't turn into the slugfest many expected, it set the stage for a riveting Super Tuesday matchup between the top Democratic candidates.
No one had a better seat for the historic proceedings in Los Angeles than CNN anchor Wolf Blitzer. In a manic six-hour stretch, Blitzer anchored a live show from what looked like a rock-concert setting outside the Kodak Theatre, then moderated the head-to-head debate, with barely an hour in between to catch his breath.
It was the fifth debate Blitzer has moderated this campaign season. But he and everyone at CNN could feel this was different.
“This is Ali-Frazier, baby,” CNN's John King told me excitedly two hours before the debate, hitting his fists together as he referred to the legendary 1971 heavyweight title bout.
In a prizefight or any sporting event, the best compliment for a referee is you don't remember him. The same is true for debate moderators. In an era when even TV anchors are measured by star wattage, Blitzer, much to his credit, knows his place. “The less you hear from me, the better I will have done,” he told me minutes before taking the debate stage Thursday night.
Blitzer's morning started with three hours of debate prep, going through well over 100 possible questions, which eventually got whittled down to about 30.
Just before 1 p.m., Blitzer walked down to the outdoor set of The Situation Room for what was supposed to be the easier of his two assignments that day. Wrong.
When he stepped onto the outdoor set in front of the Kodak Theatre, he walked into a raucous mix of rock concert and sporting event that he called the loudest setting ever for his show. The set was on a platform that was circled by metallic gates holding back more than 1,000 rowdy fans, with many more watching from two levels of balconies.
They came with signs and face paint and megaphones to support their candidate. And they were boisterous. So loud that a Jimmy Kimmel Live staffer whose office was across the street e-mailed me that their windows were literally shaking.
For three straight hours, CNN staffers desperately tried to shush the crowd so Blitzer could hear himself think, much less the voices of his producers, but it was an exercise in futility. The Obama supporters were larger in number, so their chants of “Yes We Can” drowned out the Clinton faithful's “Hillary” cries.
“I was energized, but wow, was it hard to hear,” Blitzer said of the three hours he spent without moving from a tall director's chair with his feet resting on a blue metal box.
The crazed environment led CNN's King to laugh about how Blitzer usually likes a controlled environment. “Could you please set the temperature at 68 degrees exactly?” he joked.
But Blitzer looked unfazed despite barely being able to hear and even having the entire computer system crash during his show. Everyone wasn't as calm. “Everything worked yesterday,” barked a producer.
“Yeah, well today we're outside and there are 2,000 people here,” an IT person barked back.
But the only time Blitzer reacted to the rowdy crowd was when they broke into a “We Love Wolf” chant and he let a tiny smirk slip out. “Yeah, they got me,” he said.
As we walked from the set to the CNN backstage workroom for the hour break between shows, the usually stoic Blitzer was pumped. When we spoke on the phone two days earlier, he had told me he didn't really get nervous, just excited. But this night was different and he changed his tune.
“Yeah, I'm nervous,” he admitted as he drank water and shuffled through his notes after we reached CNN's backstage headquarters. “You want to do a good job. There will be tons of people watching all over the world and this is history.”
After some last-minute preparations, Blitzer took the stage for a little warm-up banter with the celebrity-packed crowd before airtime. Into the microphone he said the infamous words, “And the Oscar goes to…” before conceding he has always wanted to say that from the stage that (may) host the Oscars this month. He then warned the crowd to stay awake so their friends and colleagues wouldn't see them sleeping on camera.
But when CNN hit the air, Blitzer was all business. But the verbal fisticuffs never came—even Blitzer said he was surprised by the genial tone as we chatted on the side of the stage after the debate.
“Sure I was surprised, I didn't know what to expect,” he said. “It could have gone that way with screaming and shouting and vicious attacks, and I wouldn't have been surprised.”
Blitzer instead steered the debate through a meaningful conversation that was heavy on real issues like taxes and health care, fascinating stuff for political junkies like myself. Yet Blitzer knows there will be detractors of how he handled things, and a lot of the criticism gets personal.
“Wolf Blitzer trimmed his neck fuzz a little too closely, so you can see some acne pits on his neck,” one blogger wrote after the recent South Carolina debate.
“I see it, it comes with the territory, but you can't be obsessed with it,” he admits. “They also say they hate my voice and that I'm ugly. Some of the criticism can be justified, by the way, and then I try to improve.”
For the record, the name of the referee of Ali-Frazier's '71 fight was Arthur Mercante. And when Americans remember last Thursday's debate, I don't think they'll remember Wolf Blitzer's. And that's exactly the way he—and knowledgeable viewers—wanted it.
For more from the debate, check out Ben Grossman's LCB Notebook..
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