Moderators help frame the debates

No surprises goal of candidates' rules


September 29, 2004|By David Folkenflik | David Folkenflik,SUN STAFF

Expectations are high for the participants in the presidential debates. (An adviser to President Bush recently claimed Democrat John Kerry was "the best debater since Cicero." For his part, Kerry says Bush has never lost a political debate.)

But what of the third participant? In each of the three presidential events, a moderator will be on hand to push candidates to answer questions directly, briefly and somewhat civilly. Tomorrow night, in a role he has performed frequently during the last 16 years, PBS' Jim Lehrer will moderate the first debate in Coral Gables, Fla. He'll be followed by ABC's Charlie Gibson in St. Louis and CBS' Bob Schieffer in Tempe, Ariz. (On Oct. 5, PBS' Gwen Ifill will oversee the sole vice presidential debate in Cleveland.)

The moderators' performances can be as important as that of the candidates. How each fulfills his duties - as referee or conductor, scold or cheerleader - can influence how tens of millions of Americans perceive each debate.

The moderators are, after all, the ones who can ease or force candidates to deviate from their rehearsed gibes and touchstone phrases. They're overseeing the debates on behalf of voters, teasing out the candidates' beliefs, depth of knowledge and ability to convey thoughts in a way that inspires.

"The best weapon is always the follow-up question," said Dee Dee Myers, a Democratic consultant and media analyst who was press secretary to President Bill Clinton. "But a good candidate will briefly answer and pivot and turn to something he wants to talk about."

Though debate moderators typically are experienced and respected journalists, this year, in particular, they have little control over the details of how debates are argued. The candidates themselves have dictated the structure of the three events on nearly microscopic levels. Who will place the pens on the candidates' lecterns, how many aides can accompany each man on stage and when the vice presidential candidates will shake hands are among the fine points that have been negotiated.

Kerry's camp, desperate for free air time, won the right to have three events instead of two. One is to be a "town hall" session, where supposedly undecided voters picked by the Gallup organization pose questions selected by Gibson.

The Bush campaign fought hard to limit any possible surprises - or exchanges between the two candidates. The Commission on Presidential Debates, the bipartisan group that has been the sponsor for the events since 1988, acquiesced in all but a few elements of the Kerry-Bush pact.

The moderators refused to sign the agreement. But they're going along with its terms. "I'm going to moderate it under whatever rules the commission deems appropriate," said Schieffer. "But it's going to be a hard thing to do to get follow-up questions in."

He added, "It's the old deal - both campaigns are doing whatever they can to prevent any surprise."

Both sides are as picky about selecting moderators as they are in negotiating everything else.

Lehrer poses direct questions and asks worthwhile follow-up questions. He hates flashy journalists who use the setting to gain notice for themselves, and this commends him to the candidates. Because of his genial style, however, Lehrer can be much more easily deflected than the insistent Ted Koppel of Nightline or Tim Russert of Meet the Press. And that's why neither Russert nor Koppel, who have handled some past political debates, is likely to be selected for a general election presidential debate any time soon.

As the Columbia Journalism Review asked, back in 2001, "What more could an image-conscious adviser want than a moderator who sees his job as more of a facilitator than interrogator?"

Both Gibson and Schieffer are considered smart and affable, though Schieffer obviously has more experience covering politics. More iconoclastic interviewers, however, probably wouldn't pass muster. In 2000 and 2004, Larry King, the gentle celebrity interviewer for CNN, moderated primary debates. But don't expect to see the confrontational Bill O'Reilly or the unpredictable Terry Gross of NPR. They might ask the unexpected.

Given some leeway, moderators can make or break a debate. In May 2003, ABC News staged one in South Carolina involving the nine(!) Democratic primary candidates. Despite the crowded field, viewers came away with a solid understanding of the differences between the two most prominent candidates - Kerry and former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean - on the overriding issue of the day, the war in Iraq.

The candidates had to keep their answers short. And moderator George Stephanopoulos, while unfailingly polite, asked quick follow-up questions if a reply wasn't on point.

"We were the last, lucky ones," Stephanopoulos said yesterday. "No single candidate had veto powers [over the terms of the debates] because there were so many of them."

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