CNN Politics Chief Talks GOP Debate, Ronald Reagan and "Fascinating" Donald Trump

Jake Tapper at the Reagan Library - H 2015
Courtesy of CNN

Jake Tapper at the Reagan Library - H 2015

"He certainly has changed the race," says Sam Feist. "However, I think there’s a fascination with this race even beyond him."

To say that there's considerable interest in CNN's Wednesday GOP debate would not do all of the attention around the event justice. A record 24 million viewers tuned in to the last showdown among Republican Party hopefuls on Fox News Channel — and while this audience might not match that, it will undoubtedly be huge.

So how is the network coping with the rather unexpected expectations that few could have forecasted before Donald Trump entered the race? CNN Washington bureau chief and senior vice president Sam Feist, who oversees the cable news network's political coverage and the debate team, says that the wheels have been in motion since the beginning of the year. What has changed is the maneuvering around the glut of candidates and the line of questioning.

Feist spoke with The Hollywood Reporter on the eve of the Jake Tapper-moderated debate to talk about the staging, the questions and how the run up to this presidential election isn't that different from any other — even with Trump.

How's this debate going to differ from the first in August?

We’ve been talking to the Reagan Library for years about this. We came out to Simi Valley at the beginning of the year to look at, if we were in a position to do a debate, how we would produce it. We decided we wanted to use Air Force One as a backdrop for the debate itself — but in order to do that, we needed to build a debate stage that would put the candidates level with the middle of the airplane. That meant building a debate stage three stories off of the ground, and we did it.

And it's a much smaller venue than the Quicken Loans Arena.

It's intimate. It only holds maybe a little more than 400 people in the audience. If you think about it, if you’re a Republican presidential candidate, what are you doing? You’re running to grab the torch from Ronald Reagan as the country’s next Republican president. And when you’re president, one of the most obvious trappings of the presidency is Air Force One. When you put that together, that’s how we started developing it and thinking about our set.

How long have you been working on questions?

We’re working on the questions, obviously, and making sure that the questions that we are planning fit the news environment. So if something happens in the news, which could impact the presidential campaign or would be relevant to Republican candidates, we may tweak our plans a little bit. I never talk about the content of a debate [ahead of time], and it’s been a rule that’s served me well over the years.That being said, clearly the race has changed since the [first] debate and there are certainly new stories that have happened since the first debate that could be worthy of questions in this debate. I think the race really has taken an interesting turn since the first debate.

What's your take on all of the interest that we've seen so early in the race?

Listen, there’s always high interest in these campaigns. Ever since I’ve done debates in September after Labor Day, the country really begins to focus on the election. I don’t think that’s unique. And it's not just Donald Trump. We have 15, last week 17, candidates running for president. That’s a record number of candidates running for any party nomination. But, yes, Donald Trump is a fascinating figure. He’s been in America’s living rooms on broadcast television for years. He certainly has changed the race. However, I think there’s a fascination with this race even beyond him.

Does the volume of candidates make it that much more complicated?

There’s no question. The first piece of that is that we’re staging two debates: the early debate and the top tier debate. We just have to work very hard to make sure everybody has a fair amount of time and to make sure that we bring each candidate in as frequently as we can. It’s very important that we know at any moment how many questions the candidates had or how much time they have or had.

Is there anything someone in your position can do — or would want to do — to make sure that your own on-air talent doesn't become part of the story the way that Donald Trump did with Megyn Kelly after the last debate?

Our approach to this is debate is going to be a little different. There are 11 candidates on the stage — all of them regularly appearing on our network and other networks. They’re all on every week. We have our opportunities to interview all of these candidates all of the time. What’s unique about a debate is this is more of the rare moments that the candidates for president are on stage at the same time. We have an opportunity to ask the candidates a question about their policies or their positions and have them both respond and engage each other, and that’s unique to a presidential debate. You don’t have that in interviews. The way we’re approaching the debate is that if there’s a question you would ask in an interview, it doesn’t make sense to ask it in a debate.