As we were saying, before we were so rudely interrupted
Tonight: A CNN/Arizona Democratic Party debate
By John Mercurio
PHOENIX, Arizona (CNN) -- We now return to our regularly scheduled programming, which today finds the new group of nine '04 Dems assembled here at the Orpheum Theater for the third DNC-sponsored debate.
The 90-minute face-off, presented by the Arizona Democratic Party and CNN, gets under way at 8 p.m. EDT. It will be moderated by our very own Judy Woodruff.
Alas, there will be no Arianna, no Arnold, no pre-released questions and, we presume, no Terminator or Hummer jokes.
Sorry, we're having trouble letting go.
Nonetheless, we expect a rollicking good time this evening -- and not just if you're a baseball fan. For one thing, it will be the first time these candidates will move from one venue to another (from podiums to stools for a town-hall format) and the first time they take questions from an audience of undecided Democratic voters.
Some of the campaign's most fundamental dynamics are also shifting.
Bob Graham has quit the race since the September 25 forum in New York, helping to narrow discussion to the four or five candidates with realistic prospects. Perhaps more importantly, Wesley Clark, while still a fresh face, has lost the aura of invincibility with which he entered the race last month, increasing the chances he'll draw enemy and/or friendly fire.
One possible Clark critic tonight is Joe Lieberman, who attacked Clark yesterday in Phoenix for his initial reluctance to take a position on the Iraq war. "When you are asking the American people to support you for president, you have to be able to take a clear position for what you think is right for the country and stick with it, have the guts to stick with it," Lieberman said.
Lieberman also said he was troubled by yesterday's Washington Post report that Clark discussed his candidacy during paid speeches on college campuses after he entered the race.
"You'll probably see even more sparks than you did in New York," Arizona Democratic Party Chairman Jim Pederson told the Grind. "Whoever distinguishes themselves here has a leg up."
Before the debate, Democrats will have a chance to mingle with the state AFL-CIO executive council, which has invited all nine candidates to a midday luncheon at the Wyndham Hotel, just three blocks from the Orpheum Theater. Gov. Janet Napolitano, a Democrat, will also attend the lunch.
When the curtain goes up tonight, all nine Dems will be on stage, arranged in an arc, facing the audience and panelists. They will have identical podiums and a choice of risers for height adjustment. Candidates will be positioned randomly. Facing the stage, left to right, will be Carol Moseley Braun, Clark, Al Sharpton, John Edwards, Dick Gephardt, John Kerry, Howard Dean, Dennis Kucinich and Lieberman.
In the first part, Judy will roam the stage. CNN's Candy Crowley and Jeff Greenfield will be seated at a small desk with their backs to the audience, facing the candidates.
Judy will briefly explain the ground rules, and introduce Candy and Jeff. The remainder of part one will consist of nine question "modules," whose order is decided by draw.
The first part of the debate will take about 43 minutes.
They can do it sitting down, too
During a two-minute commercial break, Judy and the Dems will walk down the lowered "prow" of the stage, where the Dems will take seats on 2.5-foot stools in the same order as they were up onstage at the podiums.
This portion will be a free-form town meeting involving about 40 CNN-selected Democrats who say they are undecided and all nine candidates.
Judy will call on these audience members, who will direct questions to the candidates. Hoping to maximize candidate and audience interaction here, Judy may call on other candidates to respond, as well as other audience members for follow-up. This portion will take approximately 35 minutes.
All candidates will have an opportunity to respond to audience questions. Judy will assist the candidates in keeping their responses brief.
CNN has screened each of the audience members to make sure they are registered Democrats and say they are undecided about who they support in the primary. CNN also has cross-referenced our list of participants with voter files and volunteer affiliation lists provided by the Arizona Democratic Party to make sure participants have not hidden their intentions.
Dean, who's running Spanish-language ads today in Arizona, is also holding a 70-minute rally today at 2:30 p.m. EDT at Arizona State University in Phoenix. Kerry, who held a rally last night in Tucson, is holding what aides are calling a "huge" event downtown today at 5:30 p.m. EDT, just outside the debate hall.