Broadcaster is first female moderator in 20 years

As networks prepared for another event-sized audience for the second presidential debate on Tuesday, CNN’s Candy Crowley defended plans for a more active role as moderator of the town hall gathering than apparently the campaigns of President Obama and Mitt Romney say was spelled out in an agreement with organizers.

Crowley, the first woman to moderate a presidential debate in 20 years, appeared on “The Situation Room” on Monday and told host Wolf Blitzer that while it will be audience members asking questions, she will be able to do followups.

“It’s a town hall meeting,” Crowley said. “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 is a time after that for follow-up and for furthering the discussion.”

Time’s Mark Halperin reported that both campaigns complained the the Commission on Presidential Debates that Crowley was set to take a more active role as moderator than that set out in an agreement signed by both sides on Oct. 3. According to Halperin, the agreement stated that 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.”

In an interview with Variety last week, Crowley said that while the emphasis will be on the candidates and the audience, she did not “intend to be a fly on the wall.” “I have watched most of the past debates, with an emphasis on the town halls,” she said of her preparation. “I have a great group where we sit around and say, ‘Well, if this happens, then this. What we don’t know about it, and we could follow up with that. But if this question came up, the real question that may be a followup will be that.’ There is a lot of kibbutzing and carrying on. I have talked to experts on the economy and foreign policy and on health care, saying are there unanswered things out there.”

She added that she has gotten “no small amount of email saying please ask this, please ask that.” And she has talked to “everyone from the guy who cuts my hair to a woman who three weeks ago gave me a facial, to my brother. The only people I haven’t asked for questions or who haven’t offered any have been my children, who just keep saying, ‘Mom, you’re gonna be great.’”

Crowley told Blitzer that she and a small team will receive the questions from the audience on Tuesday morning, and it will be up to them to select which ones to use.

Nevertheless, she also told Variety that it will be essential to be flexible. Crowley hosts CNN’s “State of the Union,” “there has to be decisions made at the time, as opposed to going in with a formula, because I have found with the Sunday shows formulas don’t work. It depends on what is being said, how they are reacting, who is doing what.”

Crowley said that she initially didn’t see the significance of her selection until viewers came up to her and said, ‘I’m so excited a woman is doing this. So I can’t wait to watch this with my daughters. The optic counts.”

Gwen Ifill has moderated vice presidential debate, but a woman hasn’t moderated a presidential debate since Carole Simpson in 1992. Simpson also moderated a town hall debate, between Bill Clinton, Ross Perot and President George H.W. Bush. On MSNBC on Monday, Simpson said that she was worried that Crowley would be “intimidated” by both parties into playing a meeker role, rather than just go ahead and ask questions anyway. “I was very upset that women were reduced to the vice presidential debate and to the town-hall format, which does not give a woman a chance to ask the questions,” Simpson said.

Crowley, however, does have leeway in that once the debate starts, she’s on her own to do what she wants.

“If there is criticism, there is going to be criticism,” she told Variety. “Somebody is going to be unhappy somewhere, and maybe a lot of people. It can’t matter, because once you start worrying what other people are going to think when you do x,y,z, it inhibits your ability to use your background and your brain to react in a way you think you should. If you are worried about what other people are going to think, you’re not thinking.”

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