Candy Crowley’s Debate Dilemma: ‘Trying to find that space between cutting off the conversation too early or letting it go too long’

By Gail Shister 

Don’t look for President Obama and Mitt Romney to play “Eat the Moderator” in their rematch tomorrow night, says CNN’s Candy Crowley.

With the format a Town Hall Meeting at Hofstra, the candidates are less likely to ignore the moderator and make speeches, as they did with PBS’s beleaguered Jim Lehrer in the first debate, Crowley says.

“When you’re dealing directly with voters, you’re less likely to go on and on,” says Crowley, ‘State of the Union’ anchor and the first woman to moderate a presidential debate in 20 years. “There’s a different dynamic to it. Folks want to get a chance to talk to the guys.”

In a traditional debate format, “the president and Romney are quite happy to roll over the media,” Crowley, 63, says. “There’s no price to be paid for that.”

Lehrer was blasted from all corners for having been too passive. Crowley says he did exactly what he was supposed to do under the new debate format – allow the candidates to talk directly to each other in wide-open, 15-minute segments.

Getting the candidates to engage is not always easy, however, as Lehrer discovered. For most of the debate, Obama seemed like he was having an out-of-body experience.

“As much as Jim tried to have the men engage with each other, the bottom line is that the president didn’t want to engage with Romney,” says Crowley. “The president’s campaign said he wanted to talk to the American people directly. It appears he went in with the wrong strategy. Mitt was ready to rock and roll.”

On the other hand, if candidates become too engaged, “they look mean,” Crowley says. “They don’t

want to be too hot, too fierce. They’re trying to find some kind of medium, where they can be challenging, but not overheated.”

Tuesday’s Town Hall Meeting will focus on foreign and domestic policy. Crowley helped select the audience questions and will ask her own follow-ups. If one of the candidates begins to filibuster, it’s her unenviable responsibility to try to stop the runaway train.

“I’ve watched a lot of debates over the past years, and that’s what candidates do – talk over. As a moderator, you’re always trying to find that space between cutting off the conversation too early or letting it go too long.

“If someone is determined to continue to talk, you have to be equally determined to try to get them to cut it off. I don’t know either of these men to be rude. Their campaigns set the rules, largely. In some ways, that makes it a little easier for me.”

In her prep work, Crowley has reached out to everyone from hair stylists to grocery clerks to flight attendants – or, in her words, “really normal people” — to get a sense of which topics should be emphasized.

“Trust me, I’ve gone up and down ladders of all sorts of places,” she says. “The whole idea is to channel the voter and what he’s still wondering about.”

As the Town Meeting approaches, Crowley says she’s not feeling any added pressure. (“I’m already self-pressurized.”) However she does admit she’s suffering from information overload. “After a while, you have to delete some of it from your brain,” she says. “It’s all whirling around in there.”