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CNN's Crowley steps into presidential debate with comment on 'act of terror' in Libya

While Jim Lehrer was dinged for his passivity and Martha Raddatz was lionized for her incisive resolve, presidential debate moderator and CNN anchor Candy Crowley may see her entire effort in Tuesday's debate defined by a single, heated exchange over Libya.

The controversy started with a challenge from Mitt Romney, who disputed President Obama's assertion that he called an assault there that killed four Americans an act of terror one day after it occurred. "It took the president 14 days before he called the attack in Benghazi an act of terror," Romney insisted.

"Get the transcript," Obama replied.

Then Crowley stepped in. "He did call it an act of terror," the moderator noted, earning applause. "It did, as well, take two weeks or so for the whole idea of there being a riot out there about this tape to come out." (I'm assuming she meant it took that long for the administration to concede that a controversial video insulting Islam was not the inspiration for the attack, which officials now say was a coordinated assault.)

But the question arises, asked most passionately by conservatives itching to see Romney post another strong debate win:

Is this kind of real-time correction a moderator's job?

While moderators are often encouraged to be neutral guardians of speaking time and subject, there has been recent pressure to also help referee facts.

Critics said Tuesday that Crowley overstepped by siding with one candidate over another, bolstering Obama's claim that he did use the words "act of terror" in reference to the Benghazi attack.

And what the president actually said — "No acts of terror will ever shake the resolve of this great nation, alter that character or eclipse the light of the values that we stand for" — sounded more like a general statement against terrorism than a specific reference to the Libya attacks.

Conservative websites Wednesday quoted a post-debate interview with Crowley on CNN, in which she says Romney was right "in the main," but erred in citing the phrase "act of terror" as proof. This, they said, was an admission her correction was in error, but that also seems an exaggeration.

Curiously, Crowley took a different position on moderators verifying facts in a pre-debate interview with the Baltimore Sun.

"I'm not sure either one of them needs me to defend them or go after the other guy," she told TV critic David Zurawik. "I think, President Obama can figure out when Mitt Romney's wrong, and Mitt Romney can figure out when Obama's wrong."

Even before the debate began, news leaked that both campaigns had objected to Crowley asking her own questions, signing an agreement between them limiting the moderator's role, according to Time magazine.

But Crowley had different plans. "There's so much at stake, there's so little time, I expected them actually to come at me, when I tried to rein them in," Crowley told CNN after the debate. "I didn't take it personally."

Northeastern University professor Alan Schroeder, author of the 2008 book Presidential Debates: 50 Years of High-Risk TV, said the role of moderators has never been clearly defined.

"It's sort of ridiculous to fixate on the moderator," he said, noting the campaigns could object to any moderator in advance. "These are TV shows and anyone who forgets that has failed to grasp the reality of the situation."

CNN's Crowley steps into presidential debate with comment on 'act of terror' in Libya 10/17/12 [Last modified: Wednesday, October 17, 2012 3:20pm]

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