WASHINGTON — When President Obama and Mitt Romney walk out Tuesday evening for their second debate, they won’t be the only people in the spotlight.
The other person with a microphone — and with a potentially major voice in how the evening goes — will be the moderator, journalist Candy Crowley.
Moderators have taken on an outsized importance in this presidential campaign, described by partisans as using their unique role to push the results one way or the other. Obama aides blamed first debate moderator Jim Lehrer for somehow letting Romney win. Romney backers worried openly that vice presidential debate moderator Martha Raddatz would be biased because Obama attended her wedding in 1991.
Now comes the second presidential debate. The race is dead even. The White House hangs in the balance. And Crowley will decide who in a live audience at Hofstra University in Hempstead, N.Y., can ask questions — and whether she needs to ask questions of her own.
Crowley told McClatchy Newspapers she plans to ask follow-up questions and press the candidates if they don’t answer, a hands-on approach neither campaign likes. They’d rather she just hold the microphone for audience members to do the talking in what’s being billed as a town hall-style event more than a real debate.
If it’s normal for politicians to try to limit the questions, it’s second nature for a journalist such as Crowley to reserve the right to question.
“She’s going to do her own thing and not worry too much about the critics,” said Ed Henry, a former colleague of Crowley’s at CNN and now chief White House correspondent for Fox News.
“The critics are always going to say that you’re either too much in their faces or too passive,” he said. “You’re not going to please almost anyone. But I think she’s grounded and she’ll do a fabulous job.”
The 63-year-old Crowley, CNN’s chief political correspondent and host of “State of the Union,” is a veteran field reporter. She’s covered presidential politics for decades and is known for being unpretentious, chatty and a quick wit. She’s a journalist, not a celebrity TV personality or a provocateur who stirs up fights just for ratings.
“There’s something old-school reporter about her,” said Alan Schroeder, author of “Presidential Debates: Fifty Years of High-Risk TV.” “She seems like somebody in that vein of tough-talking journalists who have kind of seen it all. I think it’s going to be hard to pull one over on her.”
Crowley said she expects to guide the conversation and ask follow-ups. She also plans to press the candidates to actually answer the questions asked.
“Either go to the next question or say, ‘Wait a second, wait a second, they asked oranges, you responded apples, could you please respond to oranges?’ ” she said. “Or, ‘Hey, while we’re on this, could you please explain why this happened or what do you think about this?’ ”
Statements like that reportedly alarmed the campaigns of Obama and Romney, who complained to the Commission on Presidential Debates that they agreed to a plan that did not envision the moderator asking follow-up questions of the candidates. Crowley did not sign that agreement.
Obama spokeswoman Jen Psaki refused Monday to comment on the secret negotiations over the format of the debate. The Romney campaign would not comment.
Crowley is the first woman in 20 years chosen to moderate a presidential debate. Crowley said she thinks of herself as a journalist, not a female journalist. But the reaction she’s received changed her perspective.
“Young women and older women would hug me and say, ‘I’m so excited for this, I’m so excited,’ ” Crowley told McClatchy. “When it feels like a barrier breaker and it’s new to a generation of women to see a female on TV talking to these candidates, then I accept that it matters. That the optics of it matter.”
The last woman to moderate a presidential debate was Carole Simpson, then of ABC News, who moderated a 1992 town hall-style debate between Bill Clinton, George H.W. Bush and Ross Perot. Simpson has complained that she and Crowley were both marginalized by being assigned a format where audience members ask the questions. Crowley said she’ll wait to see how the debate goes before passing judgment on the format.
The choice of Crowley came after three high school girls collected 170,000 signatures on an online petition urging the Commission on Presidential Debates to choose a female moderator.
“I’ve never seen a woman asking those questions, it’s been men all my life,” said one of them, 16-year-old Emma Axelrod, whose father is CBS News reporter Jim Axelrod. “So how am I supposed to feel about myself when I’m told that only men can do this?”
Women are still playing catch-up when it comes to television news, said Frank Sesno, an Emmy-award winning television journalist who now directs George Washington University’s school of media and public affairs.
“It’s only been recently with Katie Couric and now Diane Sawyer that we’ve had women break the glass ceiling in the anchoring of nightly news; we still don’t have enough women in senior executive ranks,” Sesno said.
Sesno, who worked with Crowley at both Associated Press Radio and CNN, said she is skilled at cutting through the world of Washington insider politics and sound bites and getting at what matters to people.
“That will be what she brings to the debate and that is really, really important,” he said. “Because these candidates have to be steered toward putting their wonkery into the context of real people’s lives. If their sound bites can be translated into ‘what does it really mean,’ then that would be a great thing.”
Crowley said she’s trying to stay calm as she prepares to moderate on Tuesday. “I mean, it’s a great gig, what can I say? I am really excited about it and I’m nervous about it. Everything that you might expect I would be, I am,” she said.
Crowley, who laughs warmly and easily, both at her own jokes and those of others, grew up in St. Louis as the daughter of a furniture salesman. She worked her way up from traffic and crime reports to the AP radio network, NBC and then CNN in 1987.
She said she’s been talking to everyone from Syria policy experts to “the guy that cuts my hair” to get ready for the debate.
“I don’t think it’s something you go in saying, ‘I’m going to be this kind of moderator,’ ” Crowley said. “In the end the moderator wants a debate. I want these two guys to engage, and whatever I have to do to get them to engage, whether it’s to stop it, encourage it, let it roll, not let it roll, I think that’s what you do.”
There’s far more to Crowley than being the first female in two decades to moderate a presidential debate, said Fox News correspondent Henry. “To define her as ‘the woman moderator’ is nonsense. She’s a terrific reporter, an amazing wordsmith, a great friend, and oh, by the way, she happens to be a woman. She is the real deal,” Henry said.
Crowley is known for meditating in her Washington office, and has done so to help get ready for the debate. She has a “calmness, a coolness about her,” Henry said, that will shine through on Tuesday.
“I can guarantee you a few things. She’s going to be ready, she’s going to be prepared. But she’s also going to be rested, have a little fun, and realize this is an important night but it’s also just one night in her life, the president’s life and Mitt Romney’s life,” Henry said.