A day in NBC's life as it wraps a news trifecta


PHILADELPHIA -- We're hours before Tuesday's Democratic presidential debate here, and Drexel University has taken on the air of 30 Rock.

The campus buildings and the huge inflatable mascot Mario the Dragon are still here, as are the students. But in the hours before the nationally televised debate, there are unmistakable signs of it being NBC's sandbox.

The network has taken over lots of ground, not only to cover the two-hour debate but also to originate "NBC Nightly News With Brian Williams" and MSNBC's "Hardball" from here. It is an all-day affair that will feature three of the network's brightest political lights: Williams, Washington bureau chief Tim Russert and MSNBC host Chris Matthews. Correspondents Andrea Mitchell and Norah O'Donnell also will be involved.

"Hardball" has two airings and draws a huge crowd, the only time the students and political junkies will get to be so close to live TV. Matthews likes to interact with the audience when "Hardball" is on the road, and today, in his hometown, it's no different.

Matthews tussles verbally with a loud, strident member of the audience, almost all of whom seem to carry signs supporting one candidate or another. Joe Biden's are high above the crowd on sticks; Hillary Clinton's are all over the place. There even are a few makeshift "Colbert for President" signs.

In a moment between shows, Matthews looks approvingly at the chaos. He says he likes the Philadelphia attitude and believes it brings an added and welcome amount of life to the campaign.

About a block away, Williams and Russert do a live edition of "Nightly News" from the sixth floor of a campus building. The debate, which Williams says is 65 days away from the Iowa caucus on Feb. 3, is the lead, with the Philadelphia skyline as the backdrop.

"This is it for them," Russert says of the candidates. "They know they need to make a mark."

Russert is moderating the debate with Williams, who is having a busy week. He not only is anchoring the evening newscast and co-moderating the debate but also is getting ready for his guest-hosting gig on "Saturday Night Live." Today he preps for the debate until about 2:30 p.m., switches over into "Nightly News" mode and goes go back to the debate before driving back up to New York late at night to work with the "SNL" writers.

The debate will rank by Nielsen Media Research as one of the top five in cable so far this year, with more than 2 million tuning in. It also will rankle Clinton's advisers, who will claim that she was unfairly targeted. But that's politics and not a reflection on the journalists who are doing the job as they see fit.

Later in "spin alley," where campaign operatives are giving their opinions on the debate to hordes of waiting journalists, Democratic National Committee chairman Howard Dean says he was pleased with NBC and the hard work it did. He says he wouldn't have changed anything about the structure of the debate.

"It's pretty hard to argue (with having) Brian Williams and Tim Russert," Dean says.