President Obama and Mitt Romney during their first debate, on Oct. 3. (Saul Loeb / AFP-Getty Images )
It may be a mark of progress that, as the hour approaches for Candy Crowley to host Tuesday’s Obama-Romney debate, there is not too much Internet chatter about her being the first woman to host a presidential debate in two decades.
Crowley is such a familiar face on the television landscape — as a CNN reporter and host of the outlet’s “State of the Union” on Sundays — that most people are likely to see her as a reporter who happens to be female, rather than as some sort of standard-bearer for her gender.
The bigger questions for a debate moderator in a razor-tight election instead centers on what the candidates will be asked and how vigorously they will be pressed when they don’t answer.
Expect Crowley to be a lot more like Martha Raddatz, the ABC News correspondent who pursued the candidates with multiple follow-ups as moderator of the lone vice presidential debate last week, than like Jim Lehrer, the public television veteran who stayed in the distant background as President Obama and Mitt Romney met in their first encounter.
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The debate will take a different shape than the others because of the town hall format that will be followed Tuesday night at Hofstra University on Long Island, with initial questions from undecided voters.
The Gallup polling organization will gather the questioners from a pool who say they have not picked either Romney or Obama. The voters will submit their questions, and Crowley will then help pick the 15 or so who will have a chance to ask their question, live, before a national television audience expected to number 60 million or more.
The debate will cover both foreign and domestic issues. Crowley said so many topics have been chewed over on the stump, she doesn’t expect any surprises, or “gotchas.”
She just hopes she can push the candidates toward clearer answers.
“I try to think about what will help people at home who have not made their decision yet,” she said in an interview last week. “Maybe we can get into the detail people haven’t heard from them before.”
With the economy still front and center in many people’s minds, Crowley said she won’t be surprised to hear questions about jobs and gas prices and, maybe, about healthcare and Medicare.
The usual caterwauling has already begun, trying to “work the ref” in advance of the debate. But history suggests Crowley won’t be played into going after one side harder than the other.
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With the power to ask follow-up questions of both Romney and Obama, she will try to prevent, or at least expose, dodging by the two candidates.
But in the end, the substance of the debate will be largely in the hands of the two candidates.
“You have to decide when to let them go and when to cut in,” Crowley said. “It’s an organic process as you go along. In the end, you hope people just say, ‘You got as good a discussion out of these guys as you could.' "
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