Candidates Avoid Criticizing CNN's "Abide by the Rules" Debate Moderation

CNN Democratic Debate Round 2 Part 1_Bernie Sanders_Elizabeth Warren_Beto O'Rourke_John Hickenlooper - Getty - H 2019
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"I look forward to having a little more time next time," Marianne Williamson told The Hollywood Reporter in Detroit.

It was a long night for the 10 Democrats who spent some two and a half hours debating policy and politics onstage at the Fox Theatre in Detroit on Tuesday night.

After the CNN cameras turned off, with the first night of the network's inaugural 2020 primary debate in the books, eight of the candidates (minus Sen. Bernie Sanders and Mayor Pete Buttigieg) trudged over to the "Spin Room" to face the cameras of a massive press corps hungry for sound bites about what transpired.

While the three moderators CNN tapped for the role (Jake Tapper, Don Lemon and Dana Bash) faced some criticism on social media for strictly adhering to the rules set by the network and cutting off candidates who violated them, a more important constituency — the candidates themselves — largely gave the network good marks.

"They did well," Montana Gov. Steve Bullock told The Hollywood Reporter of CNN's performance.

"It's a tough job. It's a really tough job," said former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper of CNN's moderators, who went less frequently to him than some of his more high-profile opponents. (By the numbers, Hickenlooper came last in speaking time, with only eight minutes and 37 seconds.)

"It's hard to answer the questions you don't get asked, so I would have liked to have had more of the 60-second questions so I could have given a longer answer than the 30 seconds," he said. "That's all right. I haven't seen the times yet, but I'll bet I was near the bottom."

Marianne Williamson, who drew attention for her answer to a question about reparations, made a similarly gentle critique. "I look forward to having a little more time next time," she told THR when asked if she was happy with the number of questions she got. (Williamson came in ninth place in speaking time.)

Sam Feist, CNN's debate maestro, appeared jubilant after the debate, as journalists came up to congratulate him on the night's event.

"We thought the debate worked very well," Feist told THR. "We wanted to go and do a deep dive on a few very important subjects. We spent over a half hour just on health care. Everyone weighed in multiple times. Democrats say that's the No. 1 issue for them, so that's an example of how we just let it go because we thought that it was more important to do a deep dive on a subject like health care rather than hit 40 different issues."

Feist continued: "So, if you watched this debate, I think that was one of the things that we tried to do, to go longer on fewer subjects. That was our goal, and I think we pulled that off."

Well before the debate, CNN announced a series of rules guiding both the format of the event and the behavior of the candidates, including a warning that candidates who interrupted each other would have their time cut. ("Please abide by the rules" was a common plea from the CNN moderators to the candidates.)

Asked if the rules were followed by the candidates, Feist said, "I think they largely were. It wasn't perfect, but it's 10 candidates so it's always difficult to corral 10 different candidates. But, I think they largely were. I think the candidates recognized that if they adhered to the rules, it was going to be a better debate, a more intelligible debate. Particularly in the first hour, some candidates were trying to jump in more, but we were keeping an eye on their time."

Feist added, "The anchors would make it clear that we were going to get back to a candidate, and we did, and I think they understood it and there was a little bit of trust on both sides, and I think it worked well. The most important thing for us was that the audience had a substantive debate that they could hear and that you didn't have candidates talking over one another, and I don't think that we had very much of that."

As the spin room cleared out and bleary-eyed politics reporters headed for the exits, Feist said that CNN has a "22-hour half time" before the network's Wednesday night debate. "We just have to reset ourselves and start all over again," he added.