Manchester, N.H. -- By nature, I'm a debate skeptic. They're hard to differentiate, and the last one is usually forgotten as soon as the next one rolls around. But having just taken a tour of tonight's CNN debate layout-and-tech-wizardry, I am willing to suspend my disbelief. That's because CNN's format has so many tech and social-media bells and whistles that it seems more like a video game than a staid political debate, and therefore more likely to trip up the candidates--or, as I suppose CNN would say, "elicit interesting responses." Which is very much by design. "YouTube seems so four years ago, doesn't it?" David Bohrman, CNN's senior vice president and "chief innovation officer," said airily.
First, there's the stage. Nothing too techy about it (see picture above), but as Bohrman explained, the order of the candidates--Mitt Romney in the middle, Rick Santorum and Herman Cain on the wings, etc.--was determined by some precise formula that took into account various polling metrics in order to situate the most popular candidates at the center. "CNN determined the order," Bohrman told us. "It strikes us that Gov. Romney is essentially the hometown candidate. We suspect a lot of the conversation will revolve around the governor and the decisions he's made." I got the sense CNN is very much rooting for this outcome.
Once the candidates have taken the stage in precisely the right order, they're going to get hit from all sides. There will be, of course, the audience and the moderator, CNN's John King. But just before the stage is something the CNNers have dubbed "The Red Zone," where a group of registered Republican voters will be sitting who have not yet chosen a candidate. Big emphasis on that last part from Bohrman, who made it known that the network had gone to considerable effort to verify the open-mindedness of the Red Zoners and ensure that CNN didn't get punked. The Red Zone is a sort of a living, breathing, real-time focus group. But it is not only that! The Red Zone folks aren't going to just sit by, passively, stewing about Obamacare. Oh no, they're not. They'll get to ask questions of the candidates during the debate.
You know who else will get to ask questions? Three groups of Republicans who have been empaneled by CNN in three cities around New Hampshire: Plymouth, Rochester, and Hancock. (Bohrman wanted to get the entire town of Dixville Notch, which would have been cool, but it didn't work out. Maybe they don't have Twitter up there.) Anyway, these three groups will be watching, hawk-like, and the candidates will also be watching them, because they're going to be looming over the stage like Big Brother on a gigantic 27-foot-by-16-foot television screen.
Oh, but they're not all that's going to be looming over the stage on giant 27-foot screens. You know why? Because there are TWO giant 27-foot screens, and the other one will be devoted to a Twitter and Facebook stream curated by CNN's own Bryan Monroe and Derek Dodge (The hashtag will be #CNNDebate, by the way.) So you, too--or anybody!--can ask questions of the candidates. Or just embarrass them for ducking, if that's what they do. Monroe made clear that he'll be including all sorts of comments--so you if you want to shame Romney for some weak dodge on health care, you can do so IN GIANT LETTERS ON A BIG SCREEN RIGHT IN FRONT OF HIS FACE. Ha! And your comments and questions won't be limited to the audience in attendance. That's because CNN will also be broadcasting them on that scrolling thingy at the bottom of your TV screen when you watch CNN. So the candidates will not be able to escape your judgment. (Unless Bryan and Derek let them).
You're probably staring at your screen in disbelief right now, I know. But guess what? There's more. You know those annoying buzzers and lights that cut off the candidates' answers, just when they're starting to panic and say something interesting? Well, not tonight they won't be. That's because there won't be any. CNN's doing this up freestyle! If you want to go a little long? Just do it. And if John King would prefer that you elaborate on your answer a bit more, he's just going to straight up ask that you do so! Because there are no rules tonight. (At least not the kind there usually are.) And with tweets and Facebook questions and the giant looming visage of skeptical Free-Staters and some more of them down below in the Red Zone and John King and--who knows, maybe the janitor will wander by, and if he wants to ask a question I BET THEY'LL LET HIM!--so you'd better do the smart thing and tune in to CNN at 8 p.m. You won't want to miss it.
Update: Hey, CNN, if it's not too late here's a great idea from commenter Chunk063: "This is going to be awesomely hilarious. I expect two buff guys named 'Jet' and 'Steel' to show up and shoot tennis balls at them throughout the debate."