Moderator Martha Raddatz must establish control in VP debate, experts say

The Lexington Herald-LeaderOctober 5, 2012 

There was clear consensus on the day after the first presidential debate that the format fell apart, with moderator Jim Lehrer allowing the candidates to generally ignore the rules and his efforts to steer the conversation.

Among debating experts, there's also consensus that vice presidential debate moderator Martha Raddatz needs to establish firmer control when Vice President Joe Biden and U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan take the stage at Centre College next week.

"These are not really debates; they are sort of glorified interviews, and you need a moderator who is strong enough to control two very strong individuals," said Dennis Becker, CEO of The Speech Improvement Co. in Boston, who has helped coach candidates at some presidential debates. "We can't have a free-for-all where no one controls it, because the public loses out."

The format of the Centre debate is similar to Wednesday night's. The Commission on Presidential Debates announced this summer that the vice presidential debate will address foreign and domestic topics divided into nine time segments of 10 minutes each. The moderator will open each segment with a question, and each candidate will have two minutes to respond. The moderator will direct a discussion of the topic during the balance of the time in each segment.

"I would say they would need to have a more aggressive moderator," said Dan Glaser, a debate team coach at Western Kentucky University. "Jim Lehrer really dropped the ball by allowing both candidates to interrupt him when he was trying to assert time violations."

In addition, Glaser said, it's the moderator's role to keep the debaters on topic, and to get them to answer direct questions.

"They were playing like it was a school fight when they were throwing around figures," Glaser said. "We never got definitive answers from the candidates on what they meant."

Andrea Reed, director of the University of Kentucky debate program, said it seemed as though Lehrer got "steamrolled" at the very beginning because "he didn't really assert himself, and the candidates were running it more than he was."

Not everyone agreed that the vice presidential debate needs to be substantially different.

UK political science professor Stephen Voss said he thought the free-wheeling nature of the debate meant that a lot of important and complicated topics were discussed.

"I heard far more about topics from the editorial pages, things that regular voters don't hear," he said. "Sometimes my class discussions get unruly like that, and my willingness to let them continue or to cut them off depends on how much I think they're accomplishing. Last night's debate accomplished a lot."

Still, he said, if you really want to be serious about sticking to time limits, you should attach the podium microphone to a clock that cuts the sound off at the time limit, "so that we're not reliant on a moderator deciding whether he's properly balanced the interruptions and being placed in the position of deciding whether to interrupt a national party nominee."

Voss said the moderator might have to be more strict in Danville, because "I'm not as optimistic Ryan and Biden would use the space or flexibility to be that constructive."

Becker, who will critique all the debates at Electionspeakers.com, said he has tremendous respect for Raddatz, an experienced foreign affairs correspondent for ABC.

"She's a very bright woman, she's very strong at what she does, but I'm not sure how strong she will be as a moderator," he said. "It's going to be interesting to see whether she has the strength to control these men."

If he were coaching Biden and Ryan, Becker said, he would first tell them to use more "shirtsleeve English," because "I thought last night it got very wonky in parts.

"Ryan has to come across as not arrogant, but he has to not be too wonky," Becker said. "Biden has to be careful not to talk down to him."

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