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Work crews, journalists hustle to prepare for debate

By Greg Kwasnik
Sunday News Correspondent

June 11. 2011 9:35PM

GOFFSTOWN - In a slap shot straight from the god of metaphors, seven Republicans will face off Monday in a presidential primary debate inside a rough-and-tumble hockey arena.

At 8 p.m. Monday, the candidates and a potential candidate will take center ice at the Thomas H. Sullivan Arena at Saint Anselm College. The list of contenders comprises Rick Santorum, Michele Bachmann, Newt Gingrich, Mitt Romney, Ron Paul, Tim Pawlenty and Herman Cain. The debate is sponsored by the New Hampshire Union Leader, CNN and WMUR.

On Friday afternoon, that hockey arena was well on its way to becoming the world's largest television studio. Dozens of workers - some of whom had been onsite since the previous Sunday - spent Friday building a massive stage with giant television screens and graphics and truckloads of lights and electronic equipment.

'We're actually creating the venue out of basically a hockey arena,' said Michelle Poley, CNN's lighting director. 'We're turning it into a theatrical venue, so we have to bring everything into this room.'

Performing a makeover on a building the size of an aircraft hanger isn't easy. Poley and her crew spent days transforming a venue built for body checks and fistfights into a studio suited to a less physical, but still brutal sport.

'We're trying to tell a story in an interesting way,' Poley said. 'We're trying to let the candidates' positions be heard in a setting that treats everybody fairly on set - as far as how we produce the stage and how it's presented.'

Beyond the rink, dozens of CNN staffers - from producers to on-air talent - rushed about campus Friday, making preparations for a long weekend of campaign coverage.

Sam Feist, CNN's Washington, D.C., bureau chief, first began orchestrating debate preparations in December. Since then, Feist and his staff have spent months scouting possible debate locations, designing a set and devising a debate format.

Monday's debate will be town hall-style, meaning groups of likely voters, and people on Facebook and Twitter, will get a chance to ask the debaters questions directly. That kind of debate is essential to CNN's campaign coverage, Feist said.

'The presidential campaign is probably the most important story CNN will cover over the next 18 months - both the primary and the general election,' Feist said. 'We see primary debates really as the heart of our coverage. Debates really are that opportunity to see candidates, side by side, on the same stage, under the same conditions, answering questions from the same moderator.'

That moderator will be John King, CNN's chief national correspondent. King spent Friday preparing for the debate and taping segments of his own show, 'John King, USA.'' King said he wants to let the debaters do most of the talking on Monday.

'Part of being a good moderator, I believe, is listening and steering,' King said while cooling off in the air-conditioned hockey arena. 'This is not my debate. This debate belongs to these seven candidates, and the voters of this state and this country. It's my job to play traffic cop.'

Later Friday afternoon, King walked over to the Saint Anselm College quad, where he prepared for 'John King, USA.'' Parked nearby was the CNN Express bus, a mobile production studio that doubles as a dormitory for its crew.

The massive bus, swaddled in a CNN logo, is the roving newsroom for producer Josh Rubin. In just the last few months, Rubin has taken the CNN Express to cover stories across the country, from Sarah Palin's bus tour through Gettysburg, Pa., to the tornado aftermath in Joplin, Mo.

Like a mobile SWAT team for news, the CNN Express bus is a high-tech tool that comes in handy when busy presidential candidates can't sit down for a long interview.

'It's hard to get them nailed down to specific places, so the bus allows us to go to them. We had Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, McCain, Huckabee, Romney,' Rubin said. 'We actually drove Joe Biden to the airport one time, doing the interview as we went.'

Some 20 yards outside the bus, King sat in an open-air studio, interviewing Texas Rep. Ron Paul about Middle East diplomacy. Several students who had stayed at the school to work as runners for CNN watched from the sidelines, star-struck.

'It's just neat to see this all going on,' said Amanda Peters, an Amherst native and recent graduate of Saint Anselm College. 'To literally in one moment be watching a live shot filmed, and before they're almost done turn around and Ron Paul is stepping out of a car right behind you - it's a little bit surreal.'

That surreal reality will take to the ice on Monday evening. Candy Crowley, CNN's chief political correspondent and anchor of 'State of the Union with Candy Crowley,'' expects some spirited play in the debate. Crowley said some candidates may throw an elbow or two at Mitt Romney, the presumed early front-runner.

'I would expect that they're going to rough him up a little bit,' Crowley said. 'I don't think it will be full-on, go after him, attack dogs, but I think you're going to hear some sharp elbows.'


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