WASHINGTON Moderators have taken on an outsized importance in this presidential campaign, described by partisans as using their unique role to push the results one way or the other.
Aides to President Barack Obama blamed first debate moderator Jim Lehrer for somehow letting Republican nominee Mitt Romney win. Romney backers worried openly that vice presidential debate moderator Martha Raddatz would be biased because Obama attended her wedding in 1991.
Now comes the second presidential debate. The race is dead even. The White House hangs in the balance. And Candy Crowley will decide who in a live audience at Hofstra University in Hempstead, N.Y., can ask questions and whether she needs to ask questions of her own.
Crowley told McClatchy Newspapers she plans to ask follow-up questions and press the candidates if they dont answer, a hands-on approach neither campaign likes. Theyd rather she just hold the microphone for audience members to do the talking in whats being billed as a town hall-style event more than a real debate.
If its normal for politicians to try to limit the questions, its second na-ture for a journalist such as Crowley to reserve the right to question.
The 63-year-old Crowley, CNNs chief political correspondent and host of State of the Union, is a veteran field reporter. Shes covered presidential politics for decades and is known for being unpretentious, chatty and a quick wit. Shes a journalist, not a celebrity TV personality or a provocateur who stirs up fights just for ratings.
Theres something old-school reporter about her, said Alan Schroeder, author of Presidential Debates: Fifty Years of High-Risk TV. She seems like somebody in that vein of tough-talking journalists who have kind of seen it all. I think its going to be hard to pull one over on her.
Crowley said she expects to guide the conversation and ask follow-ups. She also plans to press the candidates to actually answer the questions asked.
Either go to the next question or say, Wait a second, wait a second, they asked oranges, you responded apples, could you please respond to oranges? she said.
Or, Hey, while were on this, could you please explain why this happened or what do you think about this?
Statements like that reportedly alarmed the campaigns of Obama and Romney, who complained to the Commission on Presidential Debates that they agreed to a plan that did not envision the moderator asking follow-up questions of the candidates. Crowley did not sign that agreement.
Crowley is the first woman in 20 years chosen to moderate a presidential debate. Crowley said she thinks of herself as a journalist, not a female journalist. But the reaction shes received changed her perspective.
Young women and older women would hug me and say, Im so excited for this, Im so excited, Crowley said. When it feels like a barrier breaker and its new to a generation of women to see a female on TV talking to these candidates, then I accept that it matters.
The last woman to moderate a presidential debate was Carole Simpson, then of ABC News, who moderated a 1992 town hall-style debate between Bill Clint-on, George H.W. Bush and Ross Perot.