WASHINGTON -- When President Barack Obama and Mitt Romney walk out Tuesday evening for their second debate, they wont 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.
Now comes the second presidential debate. The race is dead even. The White House hangs in the balance. And it turns to Crowley to 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 she plans to ask follow-up questions and press the candidates if they dont answer, a hands-on approach neither campaign likes. Theyd rather she just hold the microphone for audience members to do the talking in whats being billed as a town-hall style event more than a real debate.
If its normal for politicians to try to limit the questions, its second nature for a journalist such as Crowley to reserve the right to question.
Shes going to do her own thing and not worry too much about the critics, said Ed Henry, a former colleague of Crowleys at CNN and now chief White House correspondent for Fox News.
The critics are always going to say that youre either too much in their faces or too passive, he said. Youre not going to please almost anyone. But I think shes grounded and shell do a fabulous job.
The 63-year-old Crowley, CNNs chief political correspondent and host of State of the Union, is a veteran field reporter. Shes covered presidential politics for decades and is known for being unpretentious, chatty and a quick wit. Shes a journalist, not a celebrity TV personality or a provocateur who stirs up fights just for ratings.
Theres something old-school reporter about her, said Alan Schroeder, author of Presidential Debates: 50 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 its 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 were 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.