Campaigns fuss over debate moderator asking questions
NOTE: We will carry the presidential debate live at 8 p.m. on WQAD and on WQAD.com Tuesday, October 16, 2012.
(CNN) — Campaign lawyers for President Barack Obama and Mitt Romney have reportedly expressed concerns that Candy Crowley, CNN’s award-winning chief political correspondent, will ask questions in her role as moderator of Tuesday’s town hall-style presidential debate.
The report on Time Magazine’s website indicated the lawyers expressed concern to the Commission on Presidential Debates after an interview in which Crowley described her role as the debate’s moderator.
Asked about that role Monday on CNN’s “The Situation Room,” Crowley said it was the same as moderators of past town hall style presidential debates.”
“There will be questioners to the right and left of me and in front of the candidates. And they will have the questions, and as was the case in the Charlie Gibson town hall meeting and the Tom Brokaw town hall meeting in presidential campaigns past, there was a time after that for follow-up and for furthering the discussion,” Crowley said.
According to lawyers from the Romney and Obama campaigns, they felt that differed from an agreement made between the two campaigns in October, as spelled out in a memorandum of understanding.
Crowley herself, along with the debate commission and all of the other debate moderators, were not signatories on the memo.
The memo, which was posted in full on Time’s website and also contains detailed stipulations about all three presidential debates, reads: “In managing the two-minute comment periods, the moderator will not rephrase the question or open a new topic.” Time magazine and CNN share the same parent company — TimeWarner.
The memo continues, “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 states that the moderator will select the questions, but is not permitted to “coach” the questioners.
Asked about the report Monday, Obama campaign spokeswoman Jen Psaki explained “there are discussions around every debate.”
“I’m not going to get into the specifics of those,” she continued. Psaki was speaking to reporters in Williamsburg, Virginia, where Obama is preparing for Tuesday’s debate at a riverfront golf resort. “I will say that the president is looking forward to the debate tomorrow night, looking forward to answering questions from the American people who will be in the audience. But he’s prepared for and ready to take questions from wherever they come.”
Psaki said she would not get into the specifics of the campaign’s negotiations with the debate commission.
David Axelrod, a senior adviser to Obama’s campaign, wrote on Twitter Monday “Enough already about moderators. POTUS is ready for a vigorous debate and Q’s from all comers!”
A Romney campaign spokeswomen did not reply to requests for official comment, though a campaign senior adviser said, “Regardless, Governor Romney is ready and prepared to answer questions on the issues.”
Frank Fahrenkopf Jr., co-chair of the commission, told USAToday that the commission is not bound by the campaigns’ agreement and that Crowley will be able to ask follow-up questions during a two-minute “discussion” period after each candidate has answered the question posed by a member of the audience. “This (agreement) is between the campaigns,” he said Monday. “We haven’t agreed to it and neither has Candy.”
On the debate commission’s website, the debate format is spelled out: “Candidates each will have two minutes to respond, and an additional minute for the moderator to facilitate a discussion. The town meeting participants will be undecided voters selected by the Gallup Organization.”
The debate is scheduled for Tuesday evening at Hofstra University in Hempstead, New York. Crowley was announced as the debate’s moderator in August. She will be the first woman in 20 years to moderate a general election presidential debate. Carole Simpson moderated a town hall style debate in 1992, and Barbara Walters also hosted two presidential debates, in 1976 and 1984.
This year, ABC’s Martha Raddatz moderated the vice presidential debate, a role that PBS’ Gwen Ifill filled in 2008 and 2004.
Fellow journalists have argued online that Crowley should be able to ask questions of the candidates at Tuesday’s debate.
Fox News anchor Greta van Susteren wrote it was “bizarre” of the campaigns to complain about a journalist potentially asking candidates questions at a debate.
“What are they both afraid of? A surprise question? a tough question? or worse, a follow up question that challenges them? That is exactly what the American people want in a debate and yes, Candy Crowley can do that. Both candidates need to be ready for anything and capable of answering anything,” the Fox host wrote.
Chris Cillizza, political reporter for the Washington Post, wrote the campaigns were attempting to dodge follow ups and using the debate format as an excuse.
“To be clear: the campaigns’ desire to keep Crowley on the sidelines is not born out of any grand desire to ‘let the people be heard.'” Cillizza wrote. “Instead, it is a cynical play to avoid risk for both sides. The less direct questioning and, as importantly, direct follow ups the candidates are subjected to, the less chance there is they stray off their talking points and — gasp! — reveal a bit of their true characters.”