TV Preview: Debate crucial, says 'wingman' Stephanopoulos

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What do you ask the candidates who have been asked everything? That's the task facing Charles Gibson and George Stephanopoulos, moderators of tomorrow night's sole Pennsylvania Primary debate.

"That is our challenge and we will meet it," Stephanopoulos said Friday.

He declined to give specifics about the questions that may be put to U.S. Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton and Barack Obama ("I think they read your paper," he noted with a laugh), but the roles Gibson and Stephanopoulos will play are clear: "He's the anchor, I'll play wingman."

This will be the 21st debate featuring these contenders for the Democratic presidential nomination, but Stephanopoulos noted that it's the first debate since the Ohio and Texas primaries on March 4.

'Democratic Presidential Candidate debate'
  • When: 8-10 p.m. tomorrow, WTAE.
  • Moderators: Charles Gibson, George Stephanopoulos.

"There hasn't been a debate in weeks and the stakes couldn't be higher, there's no question about that," he said. "That's especially true for Sen. Clinton. Pennsylvania is a must-win state. It's the first debate since Texas and Ohio and a lot has happened since then."

Indeed. There were the YouTube videos of the ranting Rev. Jeremiah Wright, Obama's former pastor; Obama's race speech that followed; Clinton's inaccurate account of dodging sniper fire in Bosnia; Obama's controversial remarks about small-town Pennsylvanians; Clinton's response. And who knows what could happen today that will become fodder for the questioners.

"There's no shortage of things to talk about for 90 minutes," Stephanopoulos said.

In recent years, networks have been loathe to turn over prime-time real estate for political coverage, particularly of the conventions. But this election cycle, the debates have drawn record numbers of viewers. Some have compared this campaign to a new iteration of reality TV.

"We've never seen debates get so much attention in a primary season," Stephanopoulos said. "The final debate in a general election is always solid, but we're getting general election-size audiences for primary debates."

Prior to joining ABC News in 1997, Stephanopoulos served in the Clinton administration as the senior adviser to the president for policy and strategy. He said that former connection to the Clintons is not awkward now that he's on the other side asking questions.

"I've worked at ABC twice as long as I was at the White House. I covered her Senate campaigns and covered her throughout this campaign," he said. "Voters and viewers have seen I've done it objectively."

Because of tomorrow night's Democratic candidates' debate at the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia, WTAE will shake up its Wednesday night schedule.

A half-hour locally produced pre-debate program will air at 7:30 p.m., and an hour-long locally produced post-debate program will air at 10 p.m.

Regularly scheduled programs will be delayed until late-night, with "Men in Trees" at 1:05 a.m. Thursday and Entertainment Tonight" at 2:05 a.m. Thursday.

TV editor Rob Owen can be reached at or 412-263-1112. Ask TV questions at under TV Q&A.


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