Tonight’s NBC debate — will Newt do a Juan Williams/John King job on Brian?

Will Newt be able to do tonight in Tampa to Brian Williams what he did to Juan and John last week in the run-up to the South Carolina primary?

Williams — Brian, that is — ranks as the king of the evening news anchors, as smooth and seemingly seasoned and confident as they come, and he’s moderating tonight’s GOP debate in Tampa at the University of South Florida. The supporting cast features the Tampa Bay Times’s political reporter Adam Smith and the National Journal’s Beth Reinhard.

Will Brian Williams lob the first question Newt’s way — perhaps about the former Speaker’s checkered history with Fannie Mae or with his House colleagues? Will Gingrich, now leading Mitt Romney in a new poll in Florida, do what he did last Thursday — that is, answer “no,” he would not like to elaborate, as he did to CNN’s John King on the “open marriage” question?

In a performance worthy of Broadway or Hollywood, without pausing, Gingrich elaborated anyway to mercilessly pummel King while maintaining an expression of righteous indignation as the crowd jeered and cheered. Gingrich followed essentially the same playbook with Fox News’s Juan Williams a few days earlier — with perfect pauses for audience applause and shouts of support — when he said no, he did not think his remarks about food stamps and putting poor kids to work as janitors were insensitive to African-Americans, and then, again with impeccable articulation — not a “you know” interrupted his diatribe — lambasted Williams, who previously worked for NPR.

For starters, Brian Williams and panel should avoid asking yes-or-no questions, and they should be prepared with rapid-fire follow-ups that might prevent Newt, who knows the audience will support this tactic, from turning legitimate questions against the questioner.

And, come to think of it, what ever happened to the debates of past years when audience members were directed repeatedly to hold their applause until the end — and admonished repeatedly when they didn’t? That rule, although probably no longer enforceable this chaotic election cycle, would go a long way to making these debates less of a popularity contest/spectacle, and more of a forum for ideas.