Moderator Role Under Scrutiny — Before the Debate

Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney and President Barack Obama greet one another at Magness Arena moments before the start of their first debate at the University of Denver in Denver, Colo., Oct. 3, 2012.
MICHAEL REYNOLDS / AFP / Getty Images
Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney and President Barack Obama greet one another at Magness Arena moments before the start of their first debate at the University of Denver in Denver, Colo., Oct. 3, 2012.

11:10 p.m. E.T.

In a rare example of political unity, both the Romney and Obama campaigns have expressed concern to the Commission on Presidential Debates about how the moderator of this Tuesday’s town hall has publicly described her role, TIME has learned.

While an early-October memorandum of understanding between the Obama and Romney campaigns suggests that CNN’s Candy Crowley would play a limited role in the Tuesday-night session, Crowley, who is not a party to that agreement, has done a series of interviews on her network in which she has suggested that she will assume a broader set of responsibilities. As Crowley put it last week, “Once the table is kind of set by the town-hall questioner, there is then time for me to say, ‘Hey, wait a second, what about X, Y, Z?’”

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In the view of the two campaigns and the commission, those and other recent comments by Crowley conflict with the language the campaigns agreed to, which delineates a more limited role for the debate moderator. The questioning of the two candidates is supposed to be driven by the audience members — likely voters selected by the Gallup Organization. Crowley’s assignment differs from those of the three other debate moderators, who in the more standard format are supposed to lead the questioning and follow up when appropriate. The town-hall debate is planned for Oct. 16 at 9 p.m. E.T. at Hofstra University in Hempstead, N.Y.

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According to the debate-format language in the agreement, after each audience question and two-minute responses from the candidates, Obama and Romney are expected to have an additional discussion facilitated by Crowley. Yet her participation is meant to be limited. As stated in the document, “In managing the two-minute comment periods, the moderator will not rephrase the question or open a new topic … The moderator will not ask follow-up questions or comment on either the questions asked by the audience or the answers of the candidates during the debate or otherwise intervene in the debate except to acknowledge the questioners from the audience or enforce the time limits, and invite candidate comments during the two-minute response period.” The memo, which has been obtained by TIME, was signed by lawyers for the two campaigns on Oct. 3, the day of the first presidential debate in Denver.

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But if the Obama and Romney campaigns agreed to such terms, there is no evidence that Crowley did — or was ever asked to do so.

Instead, the agreement between the campaigns states merely that the commission “shall provide each moderator with a copy of this agreement and shall use its best efforts to ensure that the moderators implement the terms of this agreement.”

Which helps explain why the two campaigns are suddenly in league. After Crowley made her “X, Y, Z” remarks to Suzanne Malveaux on Oct. 5, the two campaign counsels, Bob Bauer for President Obama and Ben Ginsberg of the Romney campaign, jointly reached out to the commission to express concern that the moderator’s comments seemed to be in direct conflict with the terms of their agreement. The commission sent back word that it would discuss the matter with Crowley and reconfirm her function. It is not known if such a conversation has taken place.

The commission, both campaigns and CNN declined to comment for the record. Crowley referred all questions about the debate format to the commission.

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The apparent confusion over the town-hall moderator’s role is the latest in a series of moments that point to the unusual and often fraught relationship among the commission, the campaigns and the moderators. Ever since the bipartisan panel took over the staging of the quadrennial debates in 1988, presidential campaigns of both parties have groused that the commission is frustrating to deal with and appears at times to represent bureaucratic and institutional concerns separate from the public interest. In 2004 President Bush’s re-election campaign even gave serious consideration to sidestepping the commission’s part in the process.

In an unusual departure from the normal hostility that exists between the Obama and Romney campaigns, both parties wholeheartedly agreed with the commission’s wish to avoid a repeat of what occurred four years ago. In 2008 NBC News’ Tom Brokaw moderated the town-hall session between Obama and Republican nominee John McCain, and the two campaigns and the organizers felt that Brokaw redirected the topics too severely from the audience queries and asked too many of his own questions, limiting the number of citizens who got a chance at the microphone. Appearing on Meet the Press on Sunday, Brokaw said, “[It's] tricky for the moderator. I said that Candy Crowley ought to get combat gear after I went through that four years ago.” Brokaw told TIME, “I am satisfied citizens in the hall and online got a fair hearing.” Brokaw also said that while there was some media criticism of the job he did, he heard no complaints directly from the campaigns and that a commission official even praised the debate as “good television.”

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Throughout the long-running talks between Chicago, Boston and the commission this election season, there was unambiguous agreement on their shared goal to limit as much as possible the on-camera role of the moderator in the town-hall debate. In fact, according to one source, the key language from the memo of understanding written by the campaigns (“the moderator will not rephrase the question or open a new topic”) was taken directly from words used by a commission official during an early discussion about the debate format. In short, as far as the campaigns are concerned, there should be no new follow-up questions in the debate.

The moderators’ role is always complex. Journalists and news organizations jockey to get one of the coveted slots and become, in effect, partners with the commission and the candidates. But they are, of course, also reporters who fiercely guard their independence and bristle at any actual or perceived sense that their function is controlled by the organizers or the campaigns. All parties acknowledge that Crowley’s behind-the-scenes role will be influential. She will cull the questions submitted by the voters who are invited to attend the debate, and then decide which ones will be asked and in what order.

Crowley seems unfazed by the behind-the-scenes maneuvering. Even after concerns were raised in the wake of the Malveaux interview, Crowley made additional comments that make clear she does not feel bound by any agreement between the commission and the Obama and Romney camps. On Oct. 11, the day of the vice-presidential debate, she told Wolf Blitzer, “I’m always interested in the questions because you don’t want to — in a debate, you don’t want to go over plowed ground. Now, this is the vice-presidential candidates as opposed to the presidential candidates. So is there room there to come back to a presidential candidate and say, Well, your vice-presidential candidate said this? I’m always kind of looking for the next question … So there’s opportunity for follow-up to kind of get them to drill down on the subjects that these folks want to learn about in the town hall.”

Sources say both campaigns are preparing their candidates for the debate under the assumption that Crowley might play a bigger role than either they or the commission want. At the same time, some officials familiar with the deliberations of the campaigns say they hope that by publicizing the expectations for the moderator’s role in the town hall and making public the language in the memo, Crowley will be less likely to overstep their interpretation of her role. One key source expressed confidence on Sunday afternoon that, despite Crowley’s remarks on CNN, the moderator would perform on Tuesday night according to the rules agreed to by the two campaigns.

For the latest on the election, follow Mark Halperin on Twitter: @MarkHalperin

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Related Topics: Barack Obama, Candy Crowley, CNN, Commission on Presidential Debates, Mark Halperin, Mitt Romney, Suzanne Malveaux, Tom Brokaw, Wolf Blitzer, 2012 Elections, Analysis, News, The Page

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