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Analysis: Jim Lehrer was the debate moderator who wasn’t there

By James Rainey, Los Angeles Times –

Moderator Jim Lehrer may have achieved by default in Wednesday night’s presidential debate what political aficionados have said they have long wanted — an unfettered debate in which two candidates stood on stage alone.

Lehrer’s retiring performance came in for a wave of criticism after the first of three confrontations between President Barack Obama and Republican challenger Mitt Romney. The PBS “NewsHour” host didn’t enforce time limits, gave Obama four more minutes to speak than he gave Romney, and didn’t clarify some of the arcane terms tossed about by the two combatants.

“Dodd-Frank” and “Simpson-Bowles” soared as Google search terms late Wednesday as battalions of debate-watchers scurried to their computers looking for clarification that the 78-year-old anchorman did not provide.

The TV newsman became a presence only in his relative absence on the University of Denver stage. The candidates had barely given their closing statements when one Twitter wag had created a new handle, “SilentJimLehrer,” and animated it with ineffectual interjections such as “ … er … OK so … now” and “and uh, excuse me.”

Lehrer’s unobtrusive approach has been a hallmark of PBS “NewsHour” for decades. It’s probably one reason that Americans, in a recent Pew survey, rated the nightly show one of the most trusted news sources in the country.

Even if Lehrer’s reticent performance during the debate seemed not up to the moment, it’s unclear it had any effect on the outcome. It merely meant that Obama and Romney were on their own if they wanted to challenge facts, change the direction of the discussion or just ramble on.

The moderator’s attempts to manage the clock so gently were a surprise. When he tried to interrupt the two candidates, it barely registered, as when Obama blew past the two-minute limit in one of his responses about health care. “Two minutes is up, sir,” Lehrer politely interceded.

“No, I think — I had five seconds before you interrupted me,” Obama insisted.

Lehrer looked on mutely as the president seized another minute or so of precious airtime. He used the time to point out that Romney had passed a plan much like “Obamacare” when he was governor of Massachusetts.

Lehrer seemed to have no sense that while both men ignored the time limit, the filibustering helped Obama more. Those who watched the debate on CNN couldn’t miss the discrepancy. The outlet kept a running clock on screen of the total time occupied by Romney and by Obama.

The president at times approached a six-minute time advantage, before ending with four-plus minutes more than the challenger. Lehrer could be heard throughout, a muffled voice in the background, vainly trying to regain control of the proceedings. A gentleman apparently does not simply say, “Enough!”

If Romney was fazed by the president’s time advantage, he didn’t show it. He commandeered extra time himself on more than one topic. In the end, the two men vying for the Oval Office got what one expects they would desire — the chance to stand on their own and fight for their vision of the country.

If anyone could have used more of an assist during the 90 minutes of scuffling, it was the viewers. America’s most venerable debate moderator didn’t provide it for them. Lehrer’s 12th, and, doubtless final, turn in the referee’s chair would not go down as his finest.

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