Fox News anchor Chris Wallace repeatedly asked the candidates and the audience to behave at the third and final presidential debate on Oct. 19. (Gillian Brockell/The Washington Post)

Focused and insistent, Chris Wallace plays role of America’s hall monitor

Chris Wallace used a soft but insistent touch in moderating the third presidential debate, asking a series of substantive questions that produced fewer verbal fireworks from candidates Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, and perhaps the most policy-focused discussion of the vitriol-laced race.

It helped that Trump and Clinton remained relatively civil toward each other, with fewer interruptions and less cross talk than in their previous two meetings. As a result, Wallace spent less time policing the candidates than admonishing the audience to keep quiet.

Among the broad range of questions Wallace asked — from Supreme Court nominations to job creation to the federal budget deficit — his query to Trump about accepting the results of the election produced the evening’s most newsworthy response.

Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump said, "I'll keep you in suspense," when answering a question about the tradition of accepting the results of presidential elections. (The Washington Post)

“You have been warning that this election is rigged and Hillary Clinton is trying to steal it from you,” said Wallace, the host of “Fox News Sunday” on the Fox broadcast network. “Do you make the same commitment [as running mate Mike Pence and daughter Ivanka Trump] that you will accept the results of this election?”

Trump replied, “I will look at it at the time.”

Quickly following up as the audience rustled, Wallace reminded him that there is “a tradition” in American presidential races in which the loser of the campaign concedes to the winner. “Are you saying that you won’t uphold that tradition?” Wallace asked.

“I will tell you at the time,” Trump replied. “I’ll keep you in suspense.”

Wallace said before the debate that he did not intend to serve as a “truth squad” to correct misstatements and errors by the candidates, as moderators Anderson Cooper and Martha Raddatz at times did during the last debate in St. Louis.

The laissez-faire approach ceded more time to Clinton and Trump, though arguably it relieved them of giving direct answers to his questions.

Did Trump want to see the Supreme Court overturn Roe v. Wade, the ruling that upheld the right to abortion? Wallace asked.

During the third presidential debate on Oct. 19, moderator Chris Wallace challenged Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump for his comments about Aleppo and the Syrian war. (The Washington Post)

The Republican nominee said that would be the result of his Supreme Court nominations, but he did not definitively state his support for overturning the law.

Wallace’s technique to engender discussion was often simple. “Why are you right, and he’s wrong,” he asked on several occasions, reversing the question for each candidate.

At one point early on, Wallace did prevent Trump from taking over the debate, asserting his own alpha-male authority by saying: “I’m not a potted plant. I get to ask the questions.”

But otherwise the moderator tended to assert himself sparingly, and it was usually to scold the audience at the Thomas & Mack Center in Las Vegas. At times he seemed to be playing America’s hall monitor.

“Hold on, folks,” he said to the restive attendees at one point. “This can very easily get out of control.”

“Quiet, everyone!” he said at another point.

And when applause threatened to break out during one of Trump’s answers, Wallace warned, “This doesn’t do good for anyone.”

Following up with Democratic nominee Clinton about her jobs plan, he asked, “Your plan is like Obama’s plan that produced the slowest growth since 1949.”

“Correct,” Trump interjected.

“Thank you, sir,” said Wallace, a bit taken aback by Trump’s help.

The debate marked the first time that Wallace, the son of legendary CBS newsman Mike Wallace, had ever moderated a presidential debate. He was a co-moderator for several Fox-sponsored Republican debates during the primaries.

It was also the first time that an anchor from Fox has been selected for the prestigious role — a coup for the network, which underwent a tumultuous summer with the ouster of its co-founder and chairman, Roger Ailes, over sexual harassment allegations.

Although Trump’s feud with Wallace’s Fox colleague Megyn Kelly has been far more high profile, Wallace has had his own run-ins with the Republican nominee during the campaign. During the first Republican primary debate in August 2015, for example, Wallace drew Trump’s ire by asking about his bankruptcies. Afterward, Trump commented bitterly, “The son is only a tiny fraction of Mike, believe me.”

At a later debate, Wallace challenged Trump on his plan to reduce the federal deficit. “Your numbers don’t add up,” he told Trump, to applause from the audience.

For his part, Trump has avoided interviews with Wallace, who has a reputation for being a tough but fair questioner (and has been called, in a memorable New York Times headline this year, the “in-house moderate at Fox News”). Trump has instead appeared on more hospitable Fox programs, such as the “Fox & Friends” morning show and those hosted by Sean Hannity and Bill O’Reilly.

Although handing moderator duties to another Fox personality might have generated controversy, at least among Democrats, Wallace’s appointment by the independent Commission on Presidential Debates last month raised no major complaints, attesting to his reputation for fairness.

Wallace ably demonstrated that evenhanded approach on Wednesday night.