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New Hampshire debate: The view from the moderator’s chair

at 02:32 PM ET, 10/13/2011

I’ve finally caught up on my sleep after moderating Tuesday night’s Washington Post/Bloomberg Republican presidential debate. Given how many of these events there are in this election season, I thought it might be worthwhile to share a bit about what it is like from the chair in which I was sitting.


Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas), moderator Charlie Rose, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, former Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.) and Washington Post reporter Karen Tumulty during the presidential debate sponsored by The Washington Post and Bloomberg at Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire, Oct. 11. (Melina Mara - THE WASHINGTON POST)

First of all, the debates are about the candidates. They are running for the hardest job in the world, which means Americans expect them to be able to answer hard questions. If all you hear is their talking points, the moderator has failed.

The moderator is also there to ask what Americans might, if they had the chance.

For instance, my first question was whether anyone on Wall Street should have gone to jail as a result of the financial meltdown in 2008. That struck me as a fair one, given how the country continues to suffer from that economic catastrophe. And in a 2009 Quinnipiac poll, 74 percent of Americans--and 72 percent of Republicans said they believe Wall Street executives were guilty of criminal fraud or disastrous incompetence . The candidates I asked, on the other hand, seemed to believed the fault lies in government regulation--and took the opportunity to make that argument.

A debate is meant to create a lot of pressure, which takes everyone out of their comfort zones. There was some criticism from the right on Wednesday that I had at times been too aggressive. Rush Limbaugh, for instance, was practically operatic in his denunciations of me and the questions I posed.

But toughness is the least that viewers should expect from a debate moderator. And it is not the same as bias.

In 2007, I moderated a forum of Democratic candidates on the subject of health care, where my questions were at least as pointed. (And, yes, most of the complaints I heard after that one were from liberals.)

One who gave a particularly weak performance that day was then-Sen. Barack Obama (Ill.), then only weeks into his presidential campaign. He later acknowledged to my colleague Dan Balz that he had been unprepared for specific, pointed questions, expecting instead that he would be having “a conversation.” His strategist David Axelrod told Balz that Obama realized he had been outshone, particularly by Hillary Clinton:

“ [Clinton’s] presentation was sharp and she knew how to arouse the crowd. ... He was impressed by it,” Axelrod said. “Basically he had leaped into the deep end of a very cold pool and I think it was a shock to the system. It took him a while to figure out how to swim.”

Interestingly, though their partisans are quick to shout bias, the candidates themselves are pros who know that sharp questioning is part of a debate’s deal.

Appearing on Bloomberg TV, Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) complimented both the format and the moderators. And former House speaker Newt Gingrich (Ga.) said “there was a sense of asking legitimate questions in a legitimate way that was, frankly, better than some of the debates.”

WATCH: Bachmann talks about the debate format and the moderators

You can see what Gingrich had to say about the debate--both the questions and the format--here:

Full video: GOP economic debate

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