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CBS News’ John Dickerson expects Clinton rivals to get aggressive at Des Moines debate

John Dickerson, the newest moderator of "Face the Nation."

John Dickerson, the newest moderator of “Face the Nation.”

(Chris Usher / CBS News)

No one would blame CBS News political director John Dickerson if he felt a little disappointed when he learned that Vice President Joe Biden decided against a run for the 2016 presidential nomination.

Had Biden decided to run, Saturday’s Democratic primary debate on CBS (6 p.m. Pacific) would have been his first on-stage confrontation with front-runner Hillary Rodham Clinton. It had the makings of a political battle royal.

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Dickerson, who will moderate the debate at Drake University in Des Moines, agrees that Biden can liven up such events and even bring out clarity on the issues. But he also believes there is so much on the line for Clinton’s two remaining opponents, Sen. Bernie Sanders and former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley, they will need to come out swinging in their second debate if the primaries are to be competitive at all. And fights for survival generally make compelling television.

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“They have to be more provocative because they don’t have any more chances,” he said over lunch Thursday at a Des Moines coffee spot. “And they should be. This is the one chance they have to engage. Where they can say, ‘I disagree with you here -- I agree with you here.’ Talk about the differences at the heart of the campaign. So they should do that regardless where they are in the polls. That’s what these are about. They are not just stump speeches given in parallel.”

You kind of live with the story in your head until you can get it out.

CBS News’ John Dickerson

No one expects the CBS event to draw the kind of ratings that the Republican primary showdowns have managed to attract, thanks in large part to Donald Trump. But the Democrats drew 15 million viewers to CNN in their first meeting on Oct. 13. Even though Clinton has extended her lead in the polls, a Nov. 4 candidates forum that did not have nearly the build up of any of the previous debates - still managed to draw more than 2 million viewers for MSNBC on a Friday night.

So it’s not a reach to say that Saturday night’s meeting will provide a significant platform for Dickerson, who viewers are still just getting to know as the moderator of CBS’ “Face the Nation,” the long-running Sunday public affairs show. Dickerson, a political journalist for Time magazine and Slate before he joined CBS, took over the anchor chair from the network’s veteran chief Washington correspondent Bob Schieffer, who retired in June. The program has remained competitive in the ratings since the transition, which is never easy for long-running franchise programs.

“Bob is a legend and institution -- and then you come out and you’re the new guy,” said Dickerson “It’s nice that people didn’t say, ‘We liked Bob and that’s that.’”

While Dickerson has never moderated a debate before, he knows all about the preparation process for major news events. His late mother, Nancy Dickerson, was a pioneering Washington correspondent for CBS, NBC and other outlets over several presidential administrations. In 1971, she represented PBS in a rare network anchor sit-down with President Nixon.

Dickerson brought his mother’s reporter’s notebook from that broadcast to provide inspiration for his big moment. It’s filled with 76 hand-written questions. He will also have her rosary, which he always keeps in his pocket when he does major interviews.

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“She is definitely on my mind in this process,” he said. “Hopefully they have good TV reception wherever she is.”

Dickerson said his approach to Saturday’s showdown is similar to how he has organized and written long news pieces.

“You kind of live with the story in your head until you can get it out,” he said. “It’s constantly bedeviling you. When you’re making coffee and then it suddenly comes to you how to make a transition between two issues. That’s what it’s been like intensely for the last three weeks. I started with a huge list of topics that I’ve been whittling down. And it’s always with you. I can be out for a run and it’s like ‘Ah, this is how I ask that question about executive experience.’”

While Trump has been the ratings magnet for the recent debates, Dickerson believes the entertainment value provided by the candidate is not the only factor for people tuning in. “He’s touching on something that is real, which is the frustration out in the country,” he said. “While he’s entertaining, people want to connect it to something important.”

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Dickerson will moderate a Republican debate for CBS on Feb. 13 in Greenville, S.C. “I expect Donald Trump to be there,” he said. “Unless something cataclysmic happens.”

Twitter: @SteveBattaglio

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