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Maddow plans to get Democratic presidential hopefuls off their talking points in Rock Hill

Rachel Maddow of MSNBC’s “The Rachel Maddow Show” on set in New York.
Rachel Maddow of MSNBC’s “The Rachel Maddow Show” on set in New York. Photo contributed by MSNBC

MSNBC’s primetime political news commentary star says she didn’t pick Rock Hill to host this week’s Democratic presidential forum but the location couldn’t be better.

“If I could do it anywhere, it would be in the South,” Rachel Maddow of “The Rachel Maddow Show” said last week.

Maddow will host the MSNBC forum Friday at 8 p.m., live from Winthrop University’s Byrnes Auditorium. Candidates Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders and Martin O’Malley will attend.

The candidates, Maddow said, “better all come loaded for bear” on the question of how they’ll help their party perform better in GOP-stronghold states like South Carolina. The national Democratic Party, she says, needs a better strategy to pick up policy and election victories in Southern states.

“No party can afford to be a regional party,” Maddow said.

South Carolina’s state Democratic Party Chair Jaime Harrison also has said the party needs to reinvest in the South. After tickets for the Winthrop forum were snatched up quickly online earlier this month, Harrison said the popularity of the event is an indication of Democrats gaining ground in the Palmetto State.

Still, Democrats hold just one of seven of South Carolina’s seats in the U.S. House, and there are no Democrats currently elected to statewide office. South Carolina’s last Democratic governor was Jim Hodges, who left office in 2003 after one term.

I have yet to hear a compelling story from (any Democratic candidate) about reviving Democrats in the South.

Rachel Maddow

Putting “The First in the South” forum in a nearly guaranteed red state such as South Carolina is, Maddow said, “as close to an existential question that the Democratic Party has ... There needs to be a Southern revival.”

But, there are some Southern states where Democrats win.

Maddow points to Kentucky where the governor’s office has been historically dominated by Democrats and the state House is controlled by the party. That state holds elections on Tuesday, and Democrats are favored by some polls to win several prominent races there.

Though Maddow is a favorite among Democrats and political liberals because of her and her network’s approach to covering current events, she says she won’t be handling the presidential hopefuls with kid gloves at Winthrop.

“I want to get them off their talking points ... My guiding principle is that I only want questions in which I cannot predict what their answer will be.”

Maddow says she and her staff will brainstorm hundreds of questions to ask Friday night. She’ll then cull the list, weeding out questions the candidates have been asked before.

She hopes to solicit answers “that might make a difference to Democrats trying to choose,” she said.

Maddow has previously interviewed Clinton, Sanders and O’Malley on her show. She said she’s studied the transcripts from each, analyzing their interview style, the length of their answers and how they’ve reacted to the host interrupting their responses.

“I don’t tend to interrupt people (I’m interviewing),” Maddow said. “I like them to have the chance to complete their thought.”

But, in the forum, for the sake of time and interview quality, she said, “I may want to sort of suspend that niceness.”

Byrnes forum-combine
Candidates will get about 25 minutes on the stage at Winthrop.

Each candidate will get about 25 minutes on-stage at Winthrop, though the exact format isn’t finalized. Due to the DNC’s rules for candidate debates, the MSNBC broadcast will function strictly as a forum.

The format, like the location, Maddow says, was a Democratic Party decision, not hers or MSNBC’s to make.

The lack of debate between the candidates in Rock Hill means “they won’t be fighting each other,” she said, adding that she has a “serenity prayer” attitude toward having a forum versus a debate. She can’t change the rules, so she’ll accept them.

Maddow will broadcast her own show Thursday night from McHale’s in Rock Hill. A special edition MSNBC “Hardball” with Chris Matthews and Steve Kornacki will air Friday at 6 p.m.

Her ideal debate design, though, would put Democrats and Republicans on the stage together before primaries – something Sanders suggested when he joined the race earlier this year, Maddow said. That, she said, would force candidates from both parties to “make your case” instead of campaigning during debates and forums “to seem more pure” compared to fellow party contenders.

Clinton, Sanders or O’Malley could take the opportunity to criticize or denounce their potential GOP adversaries though. And Maddow says she sees value in giving the Democrats some talk-time on the issue.

She wants the responses to be constructive, though – a chance for the candidates to share their strategy on winning in the general election, not simply an opening to bash Republican frontrunners. In particular, she said, she has “yet to hear a compelling story from (any Democratic candidate) about reviving Democrats in the South.”

Maddow’s run-up to the forum will include “nothing fun,” she joked. “I’m like a turtle who goes inside my shell,” to prep and research and strategize on her performance.

She’ll arrive in Rock Hill by Thursday for a live broadcast of “The Rachel Maddow Show” at 9 p.m. from McHale’s on Main Street. It’s unlikely she’ll have much down-time to enjoy the area or get to know the Winthrop campus aside from Byrnes Auditorium but, she said, “I’ve heard that it’s beautiful.”

Maddow says she’s “beyond honored and flattered” the S.C. Democratic Party chose her to host the forum. “I didn’t expect it ... I wasn’t lobbying for it.”

The 42-year-old author and TV personality whose show beat CNN this month in ratings apparently still gets stressed and a little nervous before some broadcasts.

“I’m motivated by fear of failure,” she said in an upbeat tone last week. “In some ways, it feels very much like a big stage on which I might screw up.”

But any nerves won’t be nervous energy, she said. “My freak out is my standard level of excitement.”

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