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The secrets of Wolf’s success: CNN anchor dishes to Yahoo News on debates, the ‘Magic Wall,’ and his rigorous exercise regime

Dylan Stableford, Yahoo News
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Blitzer before a GOP debate in Jacksonville, Fla., on Jan. 26, 2012. (CNN)

Wolf Blitzer, anchor of CNN's political coverage and host of "The Situation Room," is sitting in the network's Election Center in Atlanta, awaiting results of Tuesday's Florida Republican primary. As a three-time moderator of the seemingly endless GOP debates, Blitzer--along with his colleague John King--has become a key character in the 2012 campaign, drawing the particular ire of former House speaker Newt Gingrich. Yahoo News spoke to Blitzer about the 2012 race, the intensity of the debates, and how he paces himself for the long haul on treadmills and Venti skim lattes.

Yahoo News: I'm going to ask you about the 2012 race, of course, but I've always wanted to know: Do you have a "Situation Room" at home?

Wolf Blitzer: No. No, I do not. [Laughs] I have a TV. I have a few TVs. I like to think wherever I am, whatever room I'm in is "The Situation Room."

What's different about covering the 2012 race than 2008 or cycles past? Has the intensity changed?

It has. I think the biggest difference for me have been the debates. They seem to be much more significant, much more intense than they were four years ago. And I've moderated a lot of them. I moderated three this time, I did five four years ago, including the final one between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama at the Kodak Theater in Los Angeles. You had an African-American man and a woman, running for president, in a venue that hosts the Oscars. It felt very historic. The 2012 debates have been historic in a different way. They've been very intense. They've also been very solid. I think they've been the most important primary debates in our history. Certainly the most important I've ever covered.

Newt Gingrich has threatened to skip any presidential debate in the fall if a member of the media moderates them, should he win the Republican nomination. ("As your nominee, I will not accept debates in the fall in which the reporters are the moderators," Gingrich said on Monday. "We don't need to have a second Obama person at the debate.") What is your response to that?

In the general election, there's a set schedule of debates, which has already been finalized by the federal Commission on Presidential Debates. He knows that. I'd be very surprised if he didn't show up. Of course he'd show up. I saw someone blog this morning, "Who does Newt want as a moderator, Donald Trump?"

Should reporters be allowed to moderate debates?

Of course, of course. We already do. Journalists are more than qualified to moderate. Jim Lehrer, or whoever is chosen as the moderator of a presidential debate in the fall, will do a great job. I'd be honored if they ever asked me to moderate one.

Speaking of the debates, you and your colleague John King played a critical part in recent debates. David Gergen went as far to say King's "open marriage" question and Gingrich's response may have put Gingrich over the top in South Carolina. And your challenging of Gingrich's response in Jacksonville may have knocked him back here. Do you think your questions changed the outcome of the GOP race?

I don't know. I think all of the debates—not just those on CNN, but on NBC, Bloomberg, Fox—have been important. I think over the course of these debates, the voters get a real sense of who the candidates are. As a candidate, you can either affect the race, and help shape public attitudes, by going out there for two hours and talking about the issues, or you can try with attack ads.

It feels like there have been more debates this cycle, even if there have been roughly the same amount as 2008. And based on the ratings, CNN would probably host a debate every night if it could. But, in your opinion, do you think there have been too many debates?

No, I do not. Millions of Americans have been tuning in, and the millions who've watched the debates are now better-informed voters. The real winners are the American people, who now can evaluate the candidates before heading out to vote.

What is your response to people who say, due to the debates, it's become a reality show. A kind of American Idol-ization of politics.

I can understand the criticism, but I disagree. They've been serious; they've been substantive. All of these candidates have their strengths and their weaknesses. Gingrich and Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum and Ron Paul—who gave us a lot of comic relief in the last debate: they're all very smart, very intelligent. They wouldn't be here, on this stage, if they weren't. You don't get to this level if you are not intelligent. Newt Gingrich did very well in the debates in South Carolina, and they helped him. But the last couple debates he did not do so well, and it may have hurt him. I've been covering him for 20 years, and I'm still trying to figure out why he didn't come as tough and as feisty as he had in those debates, and left the swinging up to Mitt Romney. It contradicted the strategy that served him so well in South Carolina. Still trying to figure that one out.

During the coverage of the votes themselves, CNN has been criticized for overuse of technology, including the "Magic Wall." Fair criticism? Is the broadcast too reliant on bells-and-whistles technology?

Some people don't like the bells and whistles, and that's fine. But I think if John King is over at the "Magic Wall," explaining how the different parts of Florida are similar to different parts of the country demographically--if you can explain it visually, it helps. My goal is to make the viewer a little bit smarter. Sometimes, if it's too cluttered on the screen, sure, it takes away from that. But that's always the goal.

Does CNN overuse the 'BREAKING NEWS' chyron?

We try to be as judicious as possible. Forgive the phrase, but we try not to cry wolf too many times—or, as I like to say, cry Wolf Blitzer. We have other phrases—"JUST IN," or "DEVELOPING STORY." I'm an old wire service guy. We used to use "bulletin" or "news alert." When I was just a young cub reporter, I remember vividly asking some senior executive, "Do we really need a 'news alert' on that story?" But have we overused the "BREAKING NEWS" label? The answer is yes. We're human, and we make mistakes. But it's a good pet peeve for you to have. I love getting feedback like this. Whenever someone criticizes us, or sends me a message on Facebook or Twitter complaining about our coverage, I take it seriously. I encourage it. I pass it along.

Are you rooting for a long Republican primary? Or are you ready for a break?

I love politics. And it's a great political story. But I'm not rooting for any particular outcome. If Romney is able to wrap up the Republican nomination in the next few days, it's still a great political story. And you know what that is? It's Romney vs. Obama. That's a pretty great story.

I'm a political news junkie. I always have been, since I was a kid growing up in Buffalo. I'm just lucky I get to make my living doing it. But even if I wasn't in this business, I'd still be a political news junkie.

An entire baseball regular season is going to be played before the general election in November. How do you pace yourself? Yoga?

I eat right. I exercise. I run 5 miles a day on the treadmill. If I don't, by the late afternoon I don't have the energy to do what I have to do, especially on big days like this. Today, for example, I'll go from 4 p.m. till past midnight. I was supposed to go till midnight but Piers Morgan asked me to come on during the top of his show to talk about the results. So I got 8 hours of sleep last night, woke up, had a good breakfast, ran 5 miles. I try to stay healthy.

How much coffee do you drink?

I have a Venti skim latte from Starbucks every morning. I may have another in the afternoon, but usually just one.

Do you think this is your last presidential cycle?

I hope not. Do you know something I don't? I want to keep going as long as I can. Andy Rooney was how old when he retired? 90? Mike Wallace? Those are my idols. I want to be doing what they're doing when I'm their age.

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