Debate moderator's light touch draws criticism

Combatants rode roughshod over Lehrer, who tried to 'get out of way'

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The new format for the presidential debate prompted plenty of partisan debate online -- as did the performance of the moderator, Jim Lehrer.

Mr. Lehrer's light touch was widely criticized during and after the debate Wednesday night, particularly by Democrats who felt that President Barack Obama's Republican challenger, Mitt Romney, effectively moderated the debate himself. Speaking to CNN after the debate, Stephanie Cutter, Mr. Obama's deputy campaign manager, said, "I sometimes wondered if we even needed a moderator because we had Mitt Romney. We should rethink that for the next debate."

But conservatives suggested that critiques of Mr. Lehrer were just excuses for Mr. Obama's poor performance.

Mr. Lehrer, 78, the former anchor of the "NewsHour" on PBS, moderated 11 presidential debates between 1988 and 2008. He had sworn off moderating future debates until the Commission on Presidential Debates persuaded him to come back this year.

He said he was persuaded by the potential of the new format: It allowed for six 15-minute conversations, each starting with a question and two-minute answers from each candidate. The format was appealing to Mr. Lehrer, who has consistently said that his job as moderator is to get out of the way and get the candidates talking.

He succeeded in getting out of the candidates' way in Wednesday night's debate, and when he did speak, it was often in phrases like, "excuse me," "wait" and "please." Throughout the evening, he strained to interrupt when the candidates went over their allotted time. And at one point he faced a testy Mr. Obama, who complained that the moderator had cut him off by saying that time was up.

"I had five seconds before you interrupted me," Mr. Obama said.

At other times, both candidates seemed to completely ignore Mr. Lehrer. When Mr. Obama criticized Mr. Romney as failing to provide more specifics about his economic plans, Mr. Romney insisted on responding.

"No, but," Mr. Lehrer said as Mr. Romney kept on going. He spoke for a minute, completing his entire thought without interruption from the moderator.

Because the first five topic areas took up more than 15 minutes each, the candidates had only three minutes to talk about the sixth topic, cures for partisan gridlock in Washington.

In an email, Mr. Lehrer said he thought the new format accomplished its purpose, "which was to facilitate direct, extended exchanges between the candidates about issues of substance." He continued, "Part of my moderator mission was to stay out of the way of the flow, and I had no problems with doing so. My only real personal frustration was discovering that 90 minutes was not enough time in that more open format to cover every issue that deserved attention."

The critiques came from several sides of the media spectrum.

"Boy, Jim Lehrer got rolled over," MSNBC's Joe Scarborough said on "Morning Joe" on Thursday morning. "You could see an exasperated look on Jim's face when they would just keep plowing right over him," Gretchen Carlson said on "Fox & Friends" on Fox News. Speaking on CNBC on Thursday morning, Steve Liesman offered up what he called a "private-sector solution" to the moderator dilemma: "Why can't the two guys take care of themselves?"

The six-topic format for a debate primarily about domestic policy also drew complaints that many issues -- gun control, abortion, reproductive rights, gay rights, the environment -- were not addressed.

The next debate between Mr. Obama and Mr. Romney on Oct. 16 will be moderated by CNN's Candy Crowley, who notably did not join the chorus of complainers about Mr. Lehrer's performance Wednesday night. She credited Mr. Lehrer for trying throughout his moderating career to get candidates to engage with each other.

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