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“Crossfire” host Paul Begala sizes up the crowd of 200 at a George Washington University auditorium and asks this question: “How many Republicans do we have in the audience tonight?” About half the people raise their hands high. “You’re supposed to be running the country,” Begala says. “What are you doing here?” It’s showtime at the Jack Morton Auditorium. Begala, the host “from the left” on the political talk show, is warming up the audience as “Lou Dobbs Moneyline,” seen on monitors located just offstage, winds down. Then the live debate begins between Begala and Tucker Carlson, the host “from the right” who is sporting his signature bowtie. “Crossfire” used to be a prerecorded 30-minute show, taped in a CNN studio with only a camera crew as a live audience and a plain black curtain as the backdrop. But on April 1, producers moved the broadcast to a colorful set in front of a live audience at GW’s new state-of-the-art theater and stretched the show to an hour. Begala and James Carville, who both worked with then-President Bill Clinton, hopped on board to take turns representing the left side of the political spectrum opposite conservative Republicans Carlson and Robert Novak, who also alternate. Sam Feist, the show’s senior executive producer, added new segments including “Fireback,” which allows audience members to ask questions or make comments on camera. The result has been a total makeover for “Crossfire,” which is drawing a TV audience 50 percent larger than last year’s and is infusing political and cultural energy into GW campus life and its Foggy Bottom environs. “There is nothing like it on television,” says Feist. “There is no daily political show in the country that is done in front of a live audience.” Those who pick up free tickets for the program “essentially see behind-the-scenes TV,” says Feist. Filling the seats at GW has not been a problem, especially on Friday night — or “date night” as the “Crossfire” crew calls it — when a crowd of students, Hill operatives, tourists and White House staffers is especially rich with couples. “If you have an interest in public affairs, government or politics … then the show is fun to see live,” says Feist. The idea of bringing “Crossfire” to campus started with GWU President Stephen Joel Trachtenberg. Mike Friedman, a vice president of the university and a journalism professor, negotiated the partnership with CNN for GW. Friedman says the response to the show has been outstanding. “It’s been a case study for creating a magnet that represents everything that Washington is about,” Friedman says. “If you were at [the University of] Michigan, you’d be cheering for the football team, whereas at GW, you’re cheering for ‘Crossfire.’” Even Lindy’s Red Lion, a bar and restaurant on the corner of 21st and I streets, N.W., a half-block from the theater, has gotten into the act by adding “Crossfire” items to its menu. The sirloin, veggie or turkey burger “on the left” is topped with cheddar cheese, jalape�o peppers, lettuce and tomato. The burger “on the right” is served simply with lettuce, tomato and mayonnaise. Both are topped with an optional “politically correct amount of fried baloney.” Back at the theater, the live audience engages everyone on the “Crossfire” team, from the production crew to the hosts. “If you’ve ever been in a conventional television studio, you are completely cut off from the world, like you’re in a casino or a missile silo,” says Carlson. “All you have are four cameramen and a floor director. You have no idea if what you are saying is going over.” Begala says having an audience helps him “find the line.” “In the studio, you get no feedback,” he says. “If I cross the line and say something mean in front of 200 people, the audience will groan. If I say a good line, they will crack up.” Begala adds that guests also enjoy the live audience, and he recalls Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., working the crowd “like a warm-up act in Vegas” before his recent appearance on the show. “Many guests are politicians, and politicians love people and love feedback,” Begala says. ‘PERFECT RECORD’ Feist has an unusual background for a TV producer. A 1999 graduate of Georgetown University Law Center and a member of the D.C. Bar, he has been with “Crossfire” for only one of his 11 years at CNN. He says he never intended to practice law, though he participated in a legal clinic in 1998, representing a woman illegally evicted from her apartment. The case went to D.C. Superior Court, and Feist was victorious. “I guess you could say I’m batting a thousand,” he laughs. “I have a perfect record, and now I’m a retired lawyer.” He considers earning a J.D. “terrific training for a D.C. journalist.” “The adversarial nature of the American judicial system plays out every night in ‘Crossfire,’” Feist says. Sometimes the debates turn into arguments, continuing backstage or at least off camera. Recently Tony Coelho, former campaign chairman for Al Gore, and former Rep. Bob Walker, R-Pa., appeared on the show, and their debate over the next House minority leader carried over to the commercial break, allowing only the studio audience to hear the full exchange. But Begala considers such jousting “part of human nature.” When the debate hits the red-hot zone during the live broadcast and everyone is talking over each other, Feist usually steps in by telling the hosts through their earpieces to remind guests to speak “one at a time.” “‘Crossfire’ is a passionate show with people who have passionate viewpoints,” Feist says. “It’s expected.” Begala says that obeying an order to end the debate is sometimes challenging because he and the other hosts are so headstrong. “To be a host on ‘Crossfire,’ you must have a bit of adolescent in you,” he says. “Our job is to challenge authority.” But, he adds, “You can be passionate and really tough in your position and still be friends with the opposition.” For example, it’s safe to say that Begala and Rep. J.C. Watts, R-Okla., the former chairman of the House Republican Conference, don’t agree on much when it comes to politics. But before the start of a recent show that featured Watts as a guest, the pair found themselves chatting amiably. “We were sitting there before airtime talking about our kids and how we’ve both been fighting the flu lately,” Begala says. If the show occasionally descends into a free-for-all, Carlson says that some basic rules of conduct still apply. “Being human doesn’t mean you have to pull your punches,” he says. “It means not making fun of people’s appearances or other things unrelated to your views or the debate.” Carlson, Feist and Begala all emphasize that “Crossfire” is a vehicle for explaining and offering perspective on the news. “News can be layer upon layer of spin, jargon and acronyms,” Carlson says. Citing the drawn-out battle in Congress over formation of the Department of Homeland Security, Carlson says “the average person had no idea that [the sticking point in negotiations] involved a labor dispute.” Adds Feist: “We try to take serious issues and make them fun. More people get involved that way. More people watch, more people join the debate, and who knows? Maybe more people will vote.” Former Legal Times intern Dorothy Cascerceri is now interning at People magazine.

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