By Luke Vargas
Hempstead, N.Y. — If Jim Lehrer’s performance as moderator was judged as lacking, Martha Raddatz’s as strong, no debate moderator this election season stirred up as much attention as CNN’s Candy Crowley, the overseer of tonight’s meeting between President Obama and Mitt Romney at Hofstra University.
The source of that buzz owed much to the structure of the encounter, a “town-hall meeting” format that took inspiration from the informal settings between candidates and voters common in the early months of the election season.
Whereas Lehrer and Raddatz questioned the candidates directly, taking control of the discussion as they saw fit, Crowley’s task as outlined by an agreement signed by both the Obama and Romney campaigns was markedly different: call on members of a screened audience to ask their questions, and then pull back.
But from Crowley’s view as a longtime journalist and anchor, those rules seemed like a major limitation that would prevent her from keeping the candidates on topic. In a series of interviews over the past week, Crowley signaled a willingness to stray from her expected role should she feel the need to pose follow-up questions. Those comments ruffled the feathers of both campaigns, but at the eleventh hour the Commission on Presidential Debates acknowledged that Crowley was indeed permitted to steer the direction of the conversation so as to “facilitate discussion,” and as soon as the debate got underway Crowley’s presence was felt.
Forced to interject after a contentious back-and-forth on the topic of domestic energy production, Crowley was forceful in guiding the freewheeling candidates back to audience questions. At one point, Crowley told a Mitt Romney eager to offer a rebuttal of the President that, “it doesn’t quite work like that.” Momentarily quieted but ultimately unwilling to drop his point, Romney offered brief remarks before returning to his stool on stage.
In the debate’s closing moments, as the discussion shifted from domestic issues to foreign policy, Mitt Romney accused the Obama Administration of failing to characterize the attack that killed the American ambassador to Libya as an act of terror. Turning to the President directly, Romney sought clarity in the precise words used in a Rose Garden press conference the day after the attack, but instead of getting a straightforward response, Obama declined to comment, merely saying “please proceed, Governor.”
Pausing for a moment before stating that he was glad Obama’s words were on the record, Romney turned his gaze back towards Crowley, who took the opportunity to jump in.
“He did, in fact, sir, call it an act of terror,” Crowley said.
As soon as those remarks left Crowley’s mouth, pundits and journalists took to the airwaves to characterize Crowley’s efforts in widely divergent terms. Politico’s Roger Simon was pleased with what he saw, saying: “Candy Crowley fact-checks & corrects Romney on live TV. Demonstrates value of an active moderator.” Meanwhile, Breitbart News’ John Nolte summed up his feelings in a short Tweet: “FACT CHECK: Candy Crowley lied to save Obama.”
President Obama and Mitt Romney will meet for a third and final debate next Monday in Boca Raton, Florida.