Romney and Gingrich Squabble over Debate Formats

The two frontrunner candidates for the Republican Presidential Nomination can agree on at least one thing: the media is at fault.

Each campaign voiced opinions about proper debate audience decorum after NBC’s Florida Republican Primary Debate on January 20th.  Prior to the debate, Host Brian Williams asked the audience to refrain from cheering or clapping.

This seemed to work to Gingrich’s disadvantage, with Romney unleashing a string of attacks and not allowing the former Speaker to cut in.  Gingrich’s top spokesman, R.C. Hammond expressed his disdain for the restriction:”I also think that the prohibition for no clapping was kind of un-American.  I’m going to [file a complaint] right now.”

This came the week after Newt Gingrich used an energetic and vocal audience to his advantage in South Carolina, a contrast which was apparent to the Romney camp.  Stuart Stevens, Romney’s top adviser, said, “audiences, I think are there to watch.  They are not there to be, sort of, an 11th man on the team.  He added, “we are picking the president of the United States, here.  It is not a game show.”

By comparison, the CNN hosted debate on January 24th allowed the audience to clap and cheer loudly throughouth the debate.  However, the audience seemed to favor Romney, as evidenced by his huge win in the Florida Primary.

After threatening to boycott any debate in which the audience is told to be silent, Kevin Kellems, one of Gingrich’s senior advisers, said, “they definitely packed the room.”

This could be a serious claim that the Republican National Committee stacked the audience against Newt Gingrich, but more likely it is simply a political ploy designed to deflect criticism and allow Gingrich’s weak performance to get lost in the confusion.

The real question here, though, is whether there is a right or wrong way to host a debate.  Is the involvement of debate audiences worthy of further consideration, or is one way as good as any other?  Is there any code of journalistic integrity that would dictate how to control an audience in a political forum?

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