On Friday night, Rachel Maddow will sit down on stage at Winthrop University with the Democratic presidential candidates.
What’s billed as “First in the South Presidential Forum” will bring Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders and Martin O’Malley to the school’s Byrnes Auditorium.
The event will bring a national spotlight to Rock Hill, where a special edition of “Hardball with Chris Matthews” will broadcast from campus Friday night and where Maddow will broadcast her own own MSNBC show live on Thursday night.
The 42-year-old former Rhodes Scholar talked with me about Friday’s forum – which will air live on MSNBC – as well as the presidential race. Here are her edited responses.
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Q: Tell me about Friday’s format.
A: It’s not a debate. Both the Republican and Democratic parties made decisions this year that they would pick a specific number of debates and require that the candidates would only participate in those. … And that means I am not allowed to put these candidates on the stage at the same time. I have to talk to them sequentially, one on one.
Q: You’ve talked to all the Democratic candidates. What do you expect to hear Friday that you haven’t heard?
A: My guiding principle on these things is I try to ask questions that I can’t predict the answer to. I want to get them off of their talking points, off of their stump speeches, out of their comfort zone.
I’m going to press them on the fact that we’re in the South … and the fate of the Democratic Party in the South is a really interesting and, I think, daunting question for the Democratic Party.
Even after the Democrats went South for their (2012 Charlotte) convention, and there was all this lip service paid to how the new South was a Democratic South, there are still major races in Southern states where the Democratic Party basically isn’t even fielding candidates. And that is a failure of what’s supposed to be a (national) party that I haven’t heard any of these candidates address meaningfully.
Q: With Joe Biden’s decision, the Democratic polls seem to have settled down. Is that race over?
A: Right now Bernie Sanders is leading in a lot of New Hampshire polls. If (he) came really close to beating (Clinton), or even beat her in Iowa, and then he did beat her in New Hampshire … that’s going to make a big disruption to the narrative, which is that Hillary’s going to take it in a walk.
I don’t think anybody anticipated that Bernie Sanders would give her this much of a run for her money. And so that makes me all the more wary about anticipating where it’s going to go from here.
Q: In the Republican debates, the media has become part of the story. Is that a good thing?
A: A smart politician can always turn an uncomfortable question back on the questioner. It’s an old dynamic in politics, to complain about the media, complain about the process. And so I’m not surprised.
The job of moderator, particularly in a debate format, is to be confrontational, to let the candidates fight it out and sometimes to interrupt and get candidates off their mark. It is a political decision on the part of the candidates to make that itself a scandal. I think it’s sort of a tactic of the moment.
Q: What did you think of the questions of the CNBC moderators in the last Republican debate?
A: If you looked at the other debates and you didn’t know who the questioners were, you would have a hard time sorting out the CNBC questions as being qualitatively different or more egregious than the other questions.
It’s never the job of the moderator to make themselves the story. That said, it is often the job of the politician to make the moderator the story.
Q: North Carolina votes March 15. Do you think either race will still be in doubt by then?
A: It’s totally possible. I mean, Donald Trump leading the Republican field for 100-plus days days, only to be superceded by Ben Carson? Six months ago nobody would have told you that that would have been the contours of this race. So I think anybody who tells you they know how it’s going to go is blowing smoke. So it’s totally unpredictable.
Q: What’s the most intriguing story line to you now?
A: This is an election like no other. I mean we’ve never had 17 candidates run for the Republican nomination. We’ve never had a former first lady the prohibitive front runner in the Democratic race. We’ve never had a reality TV star who for a long time appeared to be the prohibitive front runner for the Republican nomination.
Pick your poison. If you’re looking for something surprising to the point of being shocking, there is no shortage of surprise and unpredictability in this election on either side. I love it.
Q: What would be the ideal headline out of Friday’s forum?
A: Hopefully the ideal headline does not have me in it because it means I have not become part of the story. I want voters in the South … to learn something that’s going to help them make their decision.
Watch the Democratic forum
Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders and Martin O’Malley will participate Friday in the “First in the South Democratic Candidates Forum” at Winthrop University in Rock Hill. MSNBC host Rachel Maddow will moderate the forum, which runs from 8-10 p.m. and airs on MSNBC. Coverage begins at 6 p.m.