CONCORD, N.H. -- Rick Kaplan, producer for Saturday's ABC News/Yahoo/WMUR debate, says he doesn't "remember a debate that has as much on the line as this one."
That's quite a statement coming from Kaplan, a network veteran and former cable news president who has worked on presidential debates since 1972. But Kaplan insists that the seven Republican candidates taking the stage at 9 p.m. all have something to prove.
"There's no candidate who can skate in this one," Kaplan said. "You fight this night or you don't have another night."
"This is it," he continued. "This is do or die."
Primetime Republican debates, of which this is the 14th, have had an outsized influence on the race, with on-stage battles leading to countless tweets, blog posts and stories in a hyper-charged political news cycle. Texas Gov. Rick Perry's stumbles helped drag down strong poll numbers out of the gate; former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who thrives on verbal sparring, revived a moribund campaign with debate performances in front of millions around the country.
Despite more than a dozen previous debates -- and Sunday morning's NBC/Facebook debate on the way -- Saturday night's debate is unique in that it will be the only prime-time face-off during the crucial week before between the Iowa Caucus squeaker and Tuesday's New Hampshire primary.
"Votes have been cast. A candidate has dropped out," Kaplan said. "We're starting to see the field really take shape in terms of how it lines up here in New Hampshire and South Carolina."
Losing by just eight votes, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum has now moved to the top tier of the Republican field and, for the first time, will appear in the middle of the stage next to long-time frontrunner Mitt Romney. So Santorum, the least covered candidate of 2011, will kick off the first debate of 2012 in a prime spot rather than off to the side. "This is Santorum's first chance in the limelight," Kaplan said.
The candidates, lining up from left to right, will be former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman, Texas Rep. Ron Paul, former Massachusetts Gov. Romney, Santorum, Gingrich and Perry. ABC's Diane Sawyer and George Stephanopoulos will moderate the debate, joined by Manchester WMUR-TV anchor Josh McElveen. Kaplan said that jobs and the economy should get a significant amount of attention in the general-themed debate, along with social issues. It will air nationally on ABC, locally on WMUR, and will stream on Yahoo.
ABC scored the top-rated debate of 2011 with Stephanopoulos and Sawyer at the helm, drawing more than 7.6 million viewers. ABC can be expected to pull in political junkies and, perhaps, many viewers now just tuning into the race post-Iowa. But the network faces one hurdle in topping the December ratings: an 8 p.m. playoff game between the Detroit Lions and New Orleans Saints. ABC executives are probably hoping for a blowout.
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