Two debates in one night means twice the political theater and twice the logistical and production challenges behind the scenes.
For several months, producers have been working in Manchester, turning a small New England liberal arts college into a television studio and the center of the storm that is the 2008 presidential primary season this weekend.
"It's a pretty big operation to put on: four hours of prime time television," explains David Reiter, ABC News' senior producer for the debate. The production team spent part of the afternoon overseeing candidate run throughs and anticipating potential glitches in a production truck parked next to the event location.
Reiter estimates that the number of ABC staffers on the ground dedicated to the debates tops 100, not to mention locally hired carpenters, set designers, lighting designers, electricians, engineers, technical people, along with WMUR, ABC's affiliate station in New Hampshire, and Facebook, the social networking site that is collaborating and co-sponsoring the debate.
The Republican debate begins at 7 p.m. ET. The the Democratic debate is scheduled to begin approximately 15 minutes after the Republican debate ends.The order was decided by a coin toss.
But that proximity of the end of one debate and the start of the next means that not only must the stage be cleared of the candidates, but the audience of more than 500 changes as well. There is little overlap in the two audiences. That's not a lot of time to move that many people.
Borrowing a tried-and-true lesson in how to move large groups of people from the ABC News parent company: Disney.
"We actually took the Disney model of amusement parks and how they change audiences. At the end of the first debate we'll open the doors on one side of the room and let them flow out, at the same time we'll open the doors on the other side of the room and let other people flow in who have already been lined up and brought over from the building next door," Reiter said.
On stage the design goal was matched to the tone that the moderator, ABC News' Charles Gibson, sought for the debate. "Charlie wanted to have a very conversational set," says Reiter. "A 'round the family dinner table' — so that posed some challenges too."
The set and audience are just two parts of the debate puzzle. The logistics of any presidential debate include making room for the campaigns, their supporters and the media.
"There are about 10 campus buildings that are being used for everything," Reiter continues. "From where the debate is, to where our work space is, which is in a different building, the spin room which is in a different building, the media filing center, the campaign staff. And there's a big security operation."
In the media filing center, also known as the St. Anselm's gymnasium, more than 800 members of the press will converge tonight to watch the debates and file reports for their respective news organizations.
"We are accommodating all the local and national political reporters who are covering the campaigns. ... We also have all the campaign travel pools that need to be accommodated in here because they're traveling with the candidates. And then we also have satellite truck operators, and sound technicians and camera people and — it's an enormous number of people," says Cathie Levine, ABC News' executive director for media relations.