WASHINGTON -- It's by design, not coincidence, that the four front-running Democrats in the race for the White House will be standing together at the debate Monday night in Charleston, S.C., with the other four rivals at the ends, where they will get the least camera time. And not all the candidates are happy about this arrangement.
CNN, a debate co-sponsor, did poll the Democratic presidential campaigns to determine if the lineup should be random. But the "vote" to change came with this CNN rule: The agreement of a majority of the campaigns (five) was needed to trigger a random drawing. With the tiers pretty clearly established, the outcome seemed to be pre-ordained. As they did at the June 3 debate in Manchester, N.H., Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton and Sen. Barack Obama will have the center podiums, flanked by former Sen. John Edwards and New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson. Sen. Chris Dodd (D-Conn.) will be next to Edwards, and Sen. Joe Biden (D-Del.) will be next to Richardson. At the ends: Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio) and former Sen. Mike Gravel (D-Alaska).
Monday's debate is also co-sponsored by YouTube/ Google and the South Carolina Democratic Party. The June 3 debate averaged 2.8 million total viewers.
The format for Monday was discussed in a June 29 conference call with the campaigns.
CNN political director Sam Feist said Obama and Clinton were and will be center stage because they "would be the ones questioned by the other candidates and challenged and attacked." The staging is done because a goal of the telecast is to "make this as watchable as possible," Feist said.
In that June 29 discussion, the campaigns were asked to vote by e-mail instead of just stating their preferences on the conference call. A Kucinich representative, who was invited, did not make the call. Feist said they figured Kucinich would want a change and counted his vote that way.
Edwards "doesn't care where he stands in the debate. He cares where he stands on the issues," said spokesman Colleen Murray.
Hari Sevugan, a Dodd spokesman, said, "In a year where much of the early media focus has been on celebrity, the American people expect these debates to provide a level playing field."
He added, "I had thought the Edwards campaign voted to keep the status quo, but if they want to swap their position in the middle of the stage now, we're happy to take it."