Debate brouhaha: Much ado about nothing?

Updated

President Obama and Governor Romney will meet face-to-face tonight for the second presidential debate at Hofstra University in New York. But there’s been a bit of a brouhaha over the exact format.

This debate is scheduled to be town hall style and hosted by CNN’s Candy Crowley.  Questions will focus on domestic and foreign issues. However, both the Obama and Romney camps fear that Crowley might not stick to the format.

A flag was raised after Crowley said this to her CNN colleague Wolf Blitzer: “It’s also very hard to evade a question that comes from a town hall person and the nice thing will be, if the town hall person asks about apples, and they answer oranges, I get to say, ‘Wait a second, the question was about apples - let’s talk about that. So there’s opportunity for follow-up to kind of get them to drill down on the subjects that these folks want to learn about in the town hall.”

Crowley’s comments seem to violate the “Memorandum of Understanding”— a set of debate rules agreed to and signed by both presidential campaigns. Time magazine’s Mark Halperin, who’s also a senior msnbc political analyst, got a copy of the memo and published it online Monday. It states, of the town hall debate: “The moderator will not ask follow-up questions or comment on either the questions asked by the audience or the answers of the candidates during the debate or otherwise intervene in the debate except to acknowledge the questioners from the audience or enforce the time limits, and invite candidate comments during the 2 minute response period.”

Halperin reported Monday both campaigns were unsettled by Crowley’s comments. “Bob Bauer for President Obama and Ben Ginsberg of the Romney campaign jointly reached out to the [Commission on Presidential Debates] to express concern that the moderator’s comments seemed to be in direct conflict with the terms of their agreement. The commission sent back word that it would discuss the matter with Crowley and reconfirm her function. It is not known if such a conversation has taken place.”

A number of journalists have flocked to Crowley’s defense, including Greta Van Susteren, a former colleague of Crowley’s at CNN, and former ABC News anchor and debate moderator Carole Simpson, who appeared Monday on msnbc’s Jansing & Co.

Ed Henry, a former colleague of Crowley’s at CNN, who’s now at Fox News, told the Boston Herald,  “She’s going to do her own thing and not worry too much about the critics. The critics are always going to say that you’re either too much in their faces or too passive,” he said. “You’re not going to please almost anyone. But I think she’s grounded and she’ll do a fabulous job.”

The issue of the value of the debates has been hotly contested over the years and was the subject of a recent  “Rewrite” segment by Lawrence O’Donnell.

msnbc analysts Joy Reid and Karen Finney weighed in on the brouhaha during msnbc’s The Last Word Monday night. Reid argued Crowley should go rogue and follow up if necessary. Crowley isn’t a potted plant, but a journalist and should act accordingly, she said.

Host Lawrence pointed out that Martha Raddatz, moderator of the vice presidential debate, was widely praised for violating debate rules by interrupting the candidates and asking follow-up questions.  On the other hand, Jim Lehrer, moderator of the first debate, was roundly criticized for having observed the rules that the commission established for the moderators to stay out of the way and let the candidates have a real debate.

Meanwhile, Obama Senior Campaign Adviser David Axelrod said Tuesday’s debate will be one worth watching.

“I just encourage you to watch and show up. I think it will be an interesting debate,” Axelrod told Chris Wallace of Fox News. “I think he’s going to be aggressive in making the case for his view of where we should go as a country….But the other thing he’s going to certainly do is — I mean, we saw Governor Romney sort of serially walk away from his own proposals and certainly the president is going to be willing to challenge him, on it, as we saw the vice president challenge Paul Ryan… So, we’re going to give Governor Romney another chance on Tuesday to try and square this impossible circle.”

Debate brouhaha: Much ado about nothing?

Updated