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After months of campaigning, stump speeches, barbed statements and negative advertising, President Barack Obama and former Gov. Mitt Romney (and their respective vice presidential candidates) will finally share the same stages in October to duke it out in person. Moderating the debates will be four television journalists, chosen for one of the highest honors of their careers.
But as much as The Newsroom's Will McAvoy might want it to be, as a moderator, the debate is not about you.
Unlike the fictional character on the HBO drama series, who spent an episode in season one showing off a bombastic new format for a presidential primary debate, the journalists moderating 2012's proceedings know they are not the story. Like with a skilled referee, it's best if you don't notice they are there.
"My advice always to anybody who moderates is to spend a lot of time in front of the mirror saying 'This is not about me. This is not about me,'" says PBS NewsHour executive editor Jim Lehrer. "The opportunity to kind of show off, so to speak, is enormous. You have millions of people watching. There you are with the president of the United States and the Republican nominee for president of the United States."
But Lehrer, who will moderate his 12th presidential or vice presidential debate on Oct. 3, cautions against getting too keen on the spotlight.
"This is not an opportunity for a moderator to demonstrate his or her expertise, his or her toughness, his or her anything, other than the ability to facilitate a meaningful exchange between the candidates about things that matter," Lehrer adds. "It is not a way to audition for a better job. In fact, the more invisible the moderator is, the more successful the moderator is."
That's the task facing Lehrer; Bob Schieffer, CBS News chief Washington correspondent and moderator of Face the Nation; Martha Raddatz, ABC News senior foreign affairs correspondent; and Candy Crowley, CNN chief political correspondent and anchor of State of the Union. Of course, if debates function the way they are supposed to, as an actual exchange of ideas and a fruitful back-and-forth between the candidates, the moderator's job shouldn't be more than facilitator.
"My theory on all of this is moderators are there basically to keep time," says Schieffer. "I'll pose a question, and then if I'm not heard from until I say 'Gentlemen, time's up,' that will be fine with me. But my guess is it won't work that way, I'll have to prod both of them at various points."
Keep Your Day Job (in Mind)
A journalist's job as debate moderator differs from their day job, where they are used to being the center of attention anchoring shows or as correspondents looking to break news.
"When I'm moderating Face the Nation, I'm trying to get news. I'm trying to find out how to advance the story," Schieffer says. "This is different."
"You're not functioning as a journalist in a purer sense, you're functioning as a moderator of a presidential debate, which is a step and a process that is one of the most important things we do as an American democratic society," Lehrer adds.
Moderators prepare in a similar way to a big interview, however, starting with reading as much as they possibly can on the candidates and on the key policy issues that are the focus of their debate.
"I drove 800 miles last weekend and I listened to every possible podcast, books on tape about different subjects that could relate to the debate," says Raddatz. "There's not a moment that I'm not trying to fill my brain with something about this."
Each of the moderators say they are spending time reaching out to policy experts and think-tank employees -- though no one involved with a campaign or political party -- as well as fellow journalists to pick their brains for suggestions on topics and questions. They receive plenty of input from others -- solicited or not.
"I can assure you that I do not lack for suggestions that come into my email box constantly," says Crowley.
More important than crafting questions, Lehrer says, is building a base of knowledge to be able to react to what is happening onstage and ask follow-ups -- in that way, it's Journalism 101.
"The key to all preparation for these debates is to get enough information in my head in such a way that I'm comfortable enough to be able to listen to the answers and not be all hung up on fancy questions and all of that sort of stuff," Lehrer adds.
Weighing the Stakes
The duty of a moderator to press the candidates to really answer a questionâ€” and call them out on it if their opponent doesn't first is not lost on this group in such a close election. With just 8% of likely voters undecided, according to a University of Connecticut/Hartford Courant poll released Sept. 20, the moderators believe the debates could play a crucial role.
"The debates are really the last vehicle that can actually cause people who have made up their mind to change their minds in some cases," Schieffer says. "Whether it will or not, I don't know."
Of course, when candidates have been stumping on the campaign trail and on television for months, or more than a year as in Romney's case, the chance that either of them will say something unexpected is unlikely. But the debates offer a high-profile opportunity to reinforce a message or correct a previous misstep.
"Do I think [the debates] can change minds? I do. Do I know that they will? I don't," Crowley says. "But I think that it's less like this debate will change minds than this series of events will change minds. I think those big a-ha moments are less likely than the over-time watching of these things."
For casual voters who may just be tuning in to the election post-conventions, the debates also offer a crash course in the candidates' differences in a forum where they have not been seen before and away from the sound bites of the 24-hour news cycle.
"The debates are incredibly important because you see in one 90-minute session as much as you can," Raddatz says. "You don't have to hop around day-to-day."
A Captive Audience
Despite the fact that most voters have already chosen sides, the moderators expect many -- 50 or 60 million viewers, if history holds -- will still be watching come October.
"The electorate, 80% are definitely with the guy they picked," Crowley says. "But that doesn't mean that 80% has lost interest."
With the Romney campaign suffering a setback last week over the leak of a video shot at a party for wealthy donors earlier this year, and Obama's subsequent response to it, a debate offers the chance for candidates to take each other on in person, instead of through spokespeople, statements and negative ads.
"There will be a lot of attention on the first one because it is the first time the two candidates will be on the same stage at the same time talking about the same thing," Lehrer says.
And if not out of civic duty, there's another reason millions of Americans will watch the debates: With all of the major broadcast and cable news networks carrying them, additional TV pickings will be slim.
"I think they'll still watch. For one reason, there will be nothing else to watch," Schieffer says. "It's on all the networks. There really is not much competition."
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