The last time Jake Tapper moderated the Republican primary debate, he questioned 11 candidates in front of a TV audience of 23 million viewers, the largest in CNN's history. The anchor of the cable news channel’s Sunday show “State of the Union” will only have four contenders -- Donald Trump, Sen. Ted Cruz, Sen. Marco Rubio and Gov. John Kasich -- on stage for Thursday's GOP showdown, the party's 12th of the 2016 campaign (CNN, 5:30 p.m. Pacific). But while the number is more manageable, last week’s bawdy Republican rumble in Detroit suggests Tapper’s real challenge may be keeping it family-friendly.
Your first debate had more candidates than any other in the 2016 campaign. Were you drained after it was over?
I didn’t feel drained. I felt elated. I would never ever recommend that anyone do a debate with 11 candidates. At the end of the day some of the candidates were complaining that it was too long. But if it had been any shorter – it was a logistical challenge there are only so many minutes in an hour.
Did you watch it?
I don’t watch myself.
I can’t watch myself.
I don’t know what you see when you look in the mirror, but I see the flaws.
It seems that if you’re doing a second debate you might want to study the first one.
The race is so different now. I know what I could and should have done differently or if I could go back in time what I would have done differently. I don’t need to look at it. By the way, me not looking at myself is not just about the debate. I don’t watch my show.
You haven’t seen “State of the Union”? It’s really good.
[Laughs] Every now and then I’ll watch a clip if it’s in front of me.
You must have seen the exchange between yourself and Donald Trump when he did not immediately disavow the support of the Ku Klux Klan and David Duke. It’s being used in campaign commercials airing in the primary states.
I’ve seen it because it’s been on other shows on other channels. I’ve seen it because it’s everywhere.
It’s a pretty compelling moment of television. Your demeanor is so steady and calm as you repeat the questions. What was going through your head?
One of the things I’ve learned doing this is that the less it’s about me and the more it’s about the candidate and the answers, the better. … I’m not the kind of guy who high-fives myself for things I’ve accomplished. I’m more the kind of guy who breathes a sigh of relief for the times that I didn’t screw it up. I’m glad that the focus was on his answers and not me.
Are you going to let your kids watch the debate considering the adult nature of the language in the last one?
It’s a good question because there has been a lot of words and terms in this campaign season, that my 6-year-old and my 8-year-old should not hear. I will say this -- I am hoping the dialogue will be suitable for children. There will be no words coming out of my mouth that aren’t.
Your kids will want to see their dad.
Don’t overestimate how much my kids want to watch me on TV. They get the real thing all the time. This means very little to them.
Is there tension between creating an exciting, lively debate and keeping the event from getting out of control?
It’s something that all of us who have moderated debates have struggled with from the beginning. You want them to debate. You want them to engage with one another. But you also don’t want it to be chaotic. You don’t want it to devolve into an instructional video of how not to behave. You were asking about my children watching the debate -- I think more than I’m worried about the word choice -- this is the highest office in the land and we’re hoping it will be a debate of issues.
Do you have a personal ritual that you go through before moderating a debate?
You’re asking for a routine for something I’ve only done once.
Well, what’s the proper meal before going on for a big event like this?
I will eat bland and healthy food. I will drink plenty of coffee but not two or so hours before the debate. It’s more of a question of keeping my tone calm. Smiling. Enjoying the moment. Trying to steer this intense conversation while enjoying it and letting the audience see I’m enjoying it. That’s the main thing for me to focus on tonally.
What’s the hardest type of question to ask of a candidate?
There are a lot of great questions that are interview questions and not debate questions. There are a lot of questions that would be good in a one-on-one. But in a debate with four candidates, where you’re trying to talk about issues of importance to voters, they might not fit.
It’s already turned out to be a historic campaign. Will you be sad when it’s over?
It will be weird when it’s over, that’s for sure, just because it’s consumed so much of my life. To a degree I’ll be happy because I’ll get to spend more time with my family. But as a journalist, it’s been the story of a lifetime. So any time that happens, it will be upsetting to see it go.