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Susan Page responds to debate critics: ‘The refusal to answer a question, I thought, could be telling’

The Pence-Harris debate moderator was criticized for failing to enforce the rules or ask follow-up questions

Vice President Pence repeatedly continued to speak after his time was up, ignoring moderator Susan Page, during the vice-presidential debate on Oct. 7. (Video: The Washington Post)
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Susan Page has no regrets about how she chose to moderate the debate between Vice President Pence and Sen. Kamala D. Harris on Wednesday night.

“I felt good about how it went,” Page told The Washington Post as she headed to the airport in Utah on Thursday morning. “I felt it was a relatively civil debate, and one that was focused on issues that mattered to voters.”

Like Fox News anchor Chris Wallace, who moderated the first showdown between President Trump and former vice president Joe Biden last week, Page faced criticism for failing to ask enough follow-up questions or cut short the candidate who talked beyond the allotted time ― in this case Pence, who repeatedly ignored her very diplomatic pleas ("Thank you,” she said, over and over again) to wrap up his answers in adherence with the agreed-upon rules of the debate.

Page said Thursday that she intentionally led off with very specific questions that she believed would obviate the need for follow-ups. “I tried to ask the question so narrowly the first time around that it seemed unlikely that the second time around I was going to get a more direct response,” she said. “Some people would have handled that differently.”

She argued that “the refusal to answer a question, I thought, could be telling — maybe not as telling as if they had actually answered it — but that was not without some value." Both candidates dodged questions about whether they had discussed what would happen in the event of a “presidential disability” that would require them to take over the presidency.

Perspective: No more presidential debates this year? Not a problem. We’ve seen enough.

On her polite requests to Pence to cease talking, Page said, “I didn’t see many options beyond just speaking up and saying, ‘Thank you,’ to try to get them to stop. I didn’t have alternatives that came to mind. . . . Saying ‘thank you’ was the best option to think of."

At one point in the debate, Page held her hands up and reminded the candidates to follow the rules their campaigns had agreed to. But she interjected far less than Wallace had and was far less combative.

“I thought he had a much more challenging task than I did," she said. “I did try to learn from his experience. It made me try to think about, what can you do to control the time? What can you do if people talk over each other?"

Page, the longtime Washington bureau chief for USA Today, said she wanted the debate to be fair to both Pence and Harris, “so that both candidates got some tough questions and some easy questions.” In the end, both candidates had nearly identical speaking time, even though many viewers initially came across with the impression that Pence talked far more.

She selected nine topics for the debate but was only able to ask candidates about eight of them, leaving immigration on the cutting-room floor. “I was really sorry that we didn’t get to that,” she said. “We could have done nine more topics that were all very important, and I would definitely put immigration high on that list as something I wish we could have talked about.”

“It wasn’t a perfect debate,” she added. “There were things I wish had gone better. But, all in all, I felt a sense of, as you can imagine, relief. . . I guess I would leave it for others to judge whether it was a useful exercise for Americans, generally, who were watching."

Oh, and from her seated distance, she couldn’t see the fly on Pence’s head that lit up social media Wednesday night. When asked about it, she laughed loudly. “When I walked offstage, everyone was talking about the fly," she said. “And I had no idea what they were talking about."

Read more:

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