ABC News’ Michael Falcone reports:
JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — The gag order has been lifted.
Thursday night’s presidential debate — the 19th of the Republican primary — will feature an audience free to express their opinions about the candidates on stage.
“People are going to be able to applaud if they want,” the debate moderator, CNN’s Wolf Blitzer, said in a radio interview on Thursday, “but I don’t want to see any craziness. I want the audience to be respectful of these four candidates.”
It will be a change from Monday night’s debate at the University of South Florida where the audience seemed chastened by NBC News moderator Brian Williams’ directive not to express a reaction.
“We’ve asked our invited guests here this evening to withhold their applause, any verbal reactions to what they hear on stage, so as to ensure this is about the four candidates here tonight and what they have to say,” Williams told the crowd.
The morning after, Newt Gingrich complained bitterly that the requirement was akin to stifling “free speech.”
Thursday night’s debate, which will be hosted by CNN, the Republican Party of Florida and the Hispanic Leadership Network and held at the University of North Florida in Jacksonville, will include an audience largely chosen by the Florida GOP.
A spokesman for the state Republican Party, Brian Hughes, said in an interview with ABC News that his group has control over about 900 of the 1,200 seats in the debate hall. Hughes said the party received over 4,000 requests for seating and doled out spots to Florida GOP leaders, donors and rank-and-file activists.
The rest of the seats belong to CNN, the Hispanic Leadership Network and the university.
“We are comfortable with CNN’s policy of allowing audience response that is respectful,” Hughes said, adding that the composition of the crowd is unlikely to give one candidate an advantage.
“We are confident it’s not stacked for anyone or against anyone,” Hughes said.