Crews prepare huge set before CNN's Tuesday GOP debate

At the first CNN presidential debate this campaign season, 5-foot-2 Michele Bachmann asked for a height-raising block to stand on behind the lectern . Her request was granted and then all the other candidates seeking equal treatment got risers, too, even 6-foot-2 Mitt Romney.

Now, it's the same setup every time.

The candidates also each get a bottle of water, paper and pen. And before the debate begins each contender, one by one, stands separately on stage to test the lighting, to find out how a suit or tie appears on camera and to ensure there's a direct-line view of a spouse sitting in the audience.

"They want to feel comfortable," said Keith Thornhill, CNN's project manager for the debate.


From dealing with the GOP contenders' nerves to building the massive red, white and blue TV stage set inside an airplane hangar-size convention hall in Las Vegas, the crew putting together the CNN Western Republican Presidential Debate is leaving nothing to chance.

And CNN is on a hurry-up schedule to finish work before going live at 5 p.m. Tuesday, the first event to kick off the four-day Western Republican Leadership Conference, co-sponsor of the debate.

Normally, it takes six days to build the CNN debate set, which has been used in two previous debates co-sponsored by the network in New Hampshire in June and in Florida in September. The flashy set also will be used in three more scheduled CNN co-sponsored debates through January .

For the Las Vegas event, CNN had just three days to build the 45,000-square-foot set, including a couple of huge monitors, a chandelier of stars and seating for 1,500 audience members inside The Venetian's Sands Expo and Convention Center. Dozens of union stagehands, lighting technicians and other specialists were working around the clock starting over the weekend.


A tour of the work in progress revealed a buzz of activity -- black-garbed workers using boom lifts and other heavy equipment to rig the set, unload 20 trucks full of gear and test it all to make sure it worked. The political circus had come to town, minus only the big white tents.

"We practiced for this in Tampa," Thornhill said, explaining CNN knew it wouldn't have a lot of time to build the set in Las Vegas because another convention show had the space through Friday night.

Thornhill said he wasn't worried, however, because Las Vegas is used to big convention shows coming and going and the city's crews are expert at quickly putting up and taking down events.

"The labor here is top-notch," Thornhill said Saturday after pulling an all-night work session.


The Las Vegas debate will be like the Florida event, except for one change: Jon Huntsman won't be on stage. He's boycotting the event to protest Nevada setting its GOP presidential caucus for Jan. 14. The New Hampshire secretary of state is objecting to the date and Huntsman is siding with the Granite State in the early voting calendar tiff as he focuses all his efforts on the traditional first primary state.

"With the exception of the missing candidate, it should look the same," Thornhill said.

Sam Feist, CNN's Washington bureau chief and executive producer of the debate, said the candidates will be placed on the stage based on how well they're doing on average in national polls.

Former Massachusetts Gov. Romney gets center stage with Texas Gov. Rick Perry on his left and former Godfather's Pizza CEO Herman Cain on his right. U.S. Rep. Ron Paul of Texas will be on the other side of Cain followed by former U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania. Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich of Georgia will stand to Perry's left followed by U.S. Rep. Bachmann of Minnesota.

Today , CNN's Anderson Cooper, who will moderate the debate, plans to rehearse on the set. He'll question volunteer college students serving as stand-ins for the candidates.

During the two-hour program Tuesday, CNN also will take questions from selected members of the audience sitting in what the network calls the "red zone." The people purchased tickets to the Western Republican Leadership Conference to get into the debate. And CNN staffers interviewed the "red zone" group to select audience members who would ask a variety of questions, the network said.

Feist said the debate would focus on subjects of interest in the West, but he would not be more specific, not wanting to give away questions that might tip off the candidates.


In the end, the debates are as much show business as politics.

Michelle Brooke Poley, the lighting designer for the CNN production, said the editorial content -- how the candidates do in deflecting attacks or scoring points against a foe -- is important. But she and other members of the CNN crew also know their job is to entertain millions of TV viewers.

"Our goal is to produce a really beautiful TV show," she said.

Contact Laura Myers at or 702-387-2919. Follow @lmyerslvrj on Twitter.