What really matters about Candy Crowley hosting a presidential debate

Press reports on the choice of moderators for this fall’s presidential debates center on the selection of CNN’s Candy Crowley, the first woman to host one of the top-of-the-ticket showdowns in 20 years.

With ABC’s Martha Raddatz moderating the lone vice-presidential debate, in mid-October, that represents a righteous breakthrough for women. But what’s also even more heartening about both selections is that it puts two veteran journalists, best known for their work in the field, rather than an anchor’s chair, into the moderator’s seat.

Crowley has been a familiar presence on the campaign trail, on first radio and then television, going back to the Reagan era. She is a no-nonsense interlocutor, not shy about lunging in for a second exchange when interview subjects duck and dodge.

In the silly, no-memory zone of the blogosphere, there has been some yakety-yak because Crowley — after the choice of Rep. Paul Ryan to the Republican presidential ticket — dared to comment on a CNN panel that in her conversations with some party members there was “trepidation” about what they worried was an overly doctrinaire “ticket death wish.”

Those carping that Crowley had betrayed bias haven’t been watching the reporter over the years, or since she began moderating CNN’s Sunday show “State of the Union” a couple years ago. This is a woman who talked about Sarah Palin as “lighting a fire in the grass roots of Republican-land -- fresh, folksy and fierce.”

In recent weeks, she dug in on David Axelrod, President Obama’s chief strategist, about whether another operative had really meant to suggest that Mitt Romney might be a felon. She bored in on the White House Chief of Staff, Jack Lew, about invoking executive privilege when Obama had harshly criticized President George W. Bush for doing the same.

Top Obama campaign operative David Plouffe also recently tasted Crowley’s toughness. Wasn’t the invocation of themes from the 2008 campaign a sign, she asked, that Obama hadn’t achieved the goals he set for his first term? When Plouffe turned to deficit reduction, she responded: “But you’ve had four years to do that.”

Crowley will run the second Obama-Romney debate, a town-hall style affair on Oct. 16 at Hofstra University in Hempstead, N.Y. That will follow the kickoff encounter Oct. 3 in Denver, which will be chaired by PBS’ Jim Lehrer — who has moderated more modern debates than any other news figure. Lehrer handled all three showdowns between George W. Bush and Al Gore in 2000 and one debate each in 2004 and 2008.

Like Crowley, vice-presidential debate moderator Raddatz has substantial reporting skills, on display in recent years with her news-breaking and empathetic reports from Iraq and Afghanistan. ABC’s senior foreign correspondent has been to war zones dozens of times and among her scoops were details on the killing of top terrorists, including Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the leader of al Qaeda in Iraq.

Prior to that, she was ABC’s White House correspondent during the second Bush term. Raddatz will guide Vice President Joe Biden and Ryan of Wisconsin through their sole debate, Oct. 11 in Danville, Ky.

The last woman to oversee a presidential debate was also from ABC. Carole Simpson moderated the 1992 contest featuring Bill Clinton, George H.W. Bush and Ross Perot.

A trio of high school girls from New Jersey had mounted an online petition campaign to get a woman back on the debate stand. Emma Axelrod, Sammi Siegel and Elena Tsemberis were cheering the Commission on Presidential Debates for its choice of Crowley and Raddatz.

And for good reason. The commission not only got two women to the big political dance but two who have been-there, done-that on the reporting trail and aren’t likely to put up with any two-stepping by the men who want to occupy the White House.

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