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Cometh the hour, cometh Candy: debating the role of the debate moderator

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Matthew Gilbert

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What to watch for in second debate

After admitting that he lost the first presidential debate earlier this month, the pressure is on President Barack Obama in the town hall format.

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After the first presidential debate - even during it - the media and the public piled on moderator Jim Lehrer for being passive and letting the candidates talk over him. Mock Twitter accounts popped up, including @SilentJimLehrer.

Then at last week's vice-presidential debate, ABC's Martha Raddatz took the opposite approach, interrupting repeatedly, pursuing answers. Once again, pundits pounced, some calling her partisan, while others praised her.

There are times - and I've found this on the Sunday show - when you can let something fly, when they're doing just fine without you. And then there are times when they're on their 22d time over the same talking point and you think, OK, that's enough. 

CNN's Candy Crowley takes the hot seat for the second presidential debate on Tuesday night (midday today AEDT), and this time controversy surfaced even before the event. Crowley said she never agreed to the campaigns' rule, that the moderator should not comment on, or ask follow-ups to, the audience questions. And she said she has no intention of sitting by mute.

Moderating the debate ... Candy Crowley.

Moderating the debate ... Candy Crowley. Photo: Getty Images

"Once you begin to worry about what are people going to say about you ... you're no longer playing attention to the journalism or the moderator part of it," Crowley said last week.

The role of the moderator has become a "thing" in the US this season. What was once perceived as an honorific job, or an invisible one like a baseball umpire, is now itself under debate. Analysing the 2012 political debates has become as much about the moderators and their styles as about the candidates themselves.

The conversations often break along party lines. "Whichever side loses usually blames the moderator," the New Yorker's John Cassidy blogged the morning after the vice-presidential debate.

Well prepared ... stand-ins for Republican presidential candidate, Mitt Romney, left, and US President Barack Obama, right, run through a rehearsal with moderator Candy Crowley.

Well prepared ... stand-ins for Republican presidential candidate, Mitt Romney, left, and US President Barack Obama, right, run through a rehearsal with moderator Candy Crowley. Photo: AP

Dissection of the moderator "is much more intense this time around than I can recall in 2008 or 2004", according to CBS's Bob Schieffer, who moderated presidential debates in the previous two elections and will moderate the third and final 2012 presidential debate on October 22. "With all these blogs, with all the websites, there are just more reporters covering everything now ... . God knows what it will be like four years from now."

Jim Madigan of WGBY-TV in Western Massachusetts, who moderated last week's third debate between Senator Scott Brown and Elizabeth Warren, has noticed the same growing scrutiny of moderators.

"The stakes are just so high right now that people are looking for every reason to figure out why whatever happens to their candidate happens," he said "Whether they think they did well, or usually if they think they didn't do well or didn't get a fair shake, right away they point - well the moderator was tougher on them with time, or didn't give them equal time, or interrupted them."

Criticised ... Jim Lehrer.

Criticised ... Jim Lehrer. Photo: AFP

What is the job about? Just holding the stopwatch? Keeping the candidates on point? Letting them duke it out?

"My role there is not only as time-keeper," Schieffer said, "but also to make sure each one gets an equal shot. If I ask one of them a question, and they go two minutes, and the other goes two minutes, and then the other person decides to filibuster, I know how to stop that. I won't hesitate. I'll do it in a polite way ... It's the quality of the discussion that matters. I'll try to follow the rules, but if they really get into it, and they're making points, I'm going to give them a chance to do that."

Schieffer says that on his weekly show, Face the Nation, he wants to move the story forward.

Candy Crowley ... says she will not stay mute.

Candy Crowley ... says she will not stay mute. Photo: Getty Images

"I'm trying to find a new top for whatever the big story of the week is. In this case, I think it is my responsibility to help people know the two people who are running for president better. It's my hope that they would come away from the debate having a better feel and a better understanding of what position these people take on the major issues of the day, but even more than that, having a better feel for who they are. And how they would react in time of crisis."

As for the criticisms he heard after his own debate performance, Lehrer defended his style, saying, in a statement: "Part of my moderator mission was to stay out of the way of the flow."

Will Crowley take the same approach at Hofstra University in New York, when President Obama and Republican nominee Mitt Romney face off?

Advice ... Bob Shieffer.

Advice ... Bob Shieffer. Photo: Getty Images

The host of the Sunday morning new series State of the Union With Candy Crowley said she plans to determine her role in the moment, based on the feeling of the room.

"Being the moderator is more organic to the evening than it is something you can set up ahead of time," she said. "There are times - and I've found this on the Sunday show - when you can let something fly, when they're doing just fine without you. And then there are times when they're on their 22d time over the same talking point and you think, OK, that's enough. So I don't know that I can say to you, I'm going to be a really tough person, that the minute they go to 2 minutes and 5 seconds I'm going to chop them off at the knees. If they go to 2 minutes and 10 seconds and they're involved in a conversation, I may just say this is taking it somewhere. It's much more of a debate-specific thing."

She says she has prepared - "I've talked to experts in journalism, people in economics, people in foreign policy, and then I've talked to the guy that cuts my hair, my brother back in the Midwest, my nieces" - but she doesn't want to overthink her approach. She says that political reporters get caught up in the intricacies, but "it's really a lot simpler for most voters, who don't need to know line 6B of this or that policy".

The debate is in a town hall format, which means questions will come from the audience. One advantage of the format for the moderator, Crowley says, is that viewers might not care whether a politician runs over a member of the mainstream media, but they will if he or she dodges a voter.

"If somebody stands and says: 'What about oranges,' and they both answer 'Apples,"' she said, "I can say, 'Wait a second, you didn't answer that.' You become an advocate for the question, as opposed to your own position on the stage. I think that's what you want to be, is an advocate for the question."

Next week, the presidential candidates will be sitting at a table with Schieffer and not behind a podium.

"The fact that they're so close together makes it easier to keep everyone on point," he said, adding that he will be able to use body language and eye contact to communicate with them.

While Crowley did admit to being "stressed out" about the debate, Schieffer, who has been with CBS News since 1969, said he no longer gets nervous - though he admits he did have butterflies in his stomach for his first debate, in 2004. Still, he is far from cavalier about the growing importance of debates.

Nowadays, he says, people watch news - on Fox News, or MSNBC, or online - to get validation of what they already believe.

"One of the best things about the debates," he said, "is that they are one of the few events left that you'll get people from all parts of the political spectrum to watch at the same time."

New York Times

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