Conventional wisdom might suggest that the moderator of presidential debate No. 3 -- Bob Schieffer of CBS News — will reprise the nearly invisible style adopted by Jim Lehrer in the first debate between President Obama and Mitt Romney.
Both Schieffer and Lehrer are old-school newsmen who ascended the ranks in the days before social media and the most aggressive branding of network stars. But don’t expect Schieffer, 75, to deliver a performance nearly as passive as Lehrer’s.
Schieffer has spent more than half a century in the news business but he has remained probing and even a bit feisty. Expect his turn in the moderator’s chair Monday in Boca Raton, Fla., to be respectful but insistent and not to rely just on the candidates alone (as Lehrer did) to help draw distinctions.
Reuters commentator Paul Gough wrote four years ago that Schieffer presided over the only one of four presidential debates between Obama and Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) that “had any life.”
“Schieffer learned the lessons of the three other debates and also was determined not to settle for the same pat answers,” Gough said. “He dug, and pressed, and wouldn’t let the candidates off the hook easily -- all of which made for a more interesting 90 minutes than its predecessors.”
Schieffer, who brought some stability to the CBS News anchor chair after Dan Rather left in a storm of controversy, will be presiding this time around, with every aspect of the electoral process under more intense scrutiny.
Moderators of the previous two presidential debates and lone vice presidential debate — PBS veteran Lehrer, CNN’s Candy Crowley and Martha Raddatz of ABC, respectively — have endured varying degrees of scorn. Lehrer was deemed too passive by many; Crowley too engaged.
Commentators in the past have praised Schieffer for getting the tone about right and for asking the offbeat question that can get his subjects to open up.
Hosting “Face the Nation” a couple of years back, he asked former Vice President Dick Cheney who he preferred as presumptive head of the Republican Party — talk show titan Rush Limbaugh or former Secretary of State Colin Powell. Cheney hesitated but plunged in -- choosing Limbaugh.
“You promised some news,” Schieffer said, smiling affably. “I think we’re probably making a little.”
The format for the debate will be similar to the one Lehrer presided over in Denver on Oct. 3 — the 90 minutes divided into six 15-minute segments. Schieffer has announced they will center on: America’s Role in the World; Our Longest War -- Afghanistan and Pakistan; Red Lines -- Israel and Iran; the Changing Middle East and the New Face of Terrorism -- I; the Changing Middle East and the New Face of Terrorism – II; and the Rise of China and Tomorrow’s World.
That’s the broad outline. Count on Schieffer to throw some interesting curves to put the candidates on the spot.
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