By DAVID BAUDER
(NEW YORK, AP) — Candy Crowley’s signature moment as moderator of Tuesday’s rough-and-tumble presidential debate came when she was called upon to referee a dispute over President Barack Obama’s description of the attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Libya as an act of terror.
When Republican Mitt Romney questioned whether the president had done so, Crowley said, “He did, in fact, sir.”
“Can you say that a little louder, Candy?” Obama said, as the debate’s audience broke into applause.
Similarly, there was applause when Crowley suggested that it also took others in the administration as much as two weeks to abandon the idea that the attacks were related to protests over an anti-Islam video.
“I was trying to bring some kind of clarity to the situation,” Crowley said later. The CNN chief political correspondent was moderating her first presidential debate and was the first woman to do so in 20 years.
It was a town hall-style debate, with a panel of 82 undecided voters brought to a Long Island college stage to put questions to the two candidates.
Crowley was caught between trying to keep the candidates to time limits yet still being flexible enough not to cut off productive exchanges. The first debate moderator, PBS’ Jim Lehrer, had received some criticism for not policing the debate. Online, Crowley was generally praised for her effort.
On CNN Wednesday, Crowley said that in the Benghazi exchange, “I was trying to move them along,” and “not fact-check them.”
She succeeded the first time in stopping Romney from trying to get in some extra words, but not the second time. That led to some social media suggestions that Romney could be hurt by appearing to look disrespectful toward a woman. Later in the debate, however, Obama talked past Crowley’s two attempts to cut short one answer.
She said later that she expected such push-back during the debate and that it didn’t bother her.
“I don’t take it personally at all,” she said in a CNN interview. “I think the first part was fun to watch and I hope enlightening.”
Social media participants also split across party lines regarding Crowley’s intercession in the Libyan questions: Democrats hailed it, while many Republicans called it out of line.
Crowley’s role as moderator had also been a subject of discussion before the debate even started. An agreement between the candidates about the debate circulated online, where it stated that the moderator would not be allowed to ask follow-up questions, or play any role other than to introduce questions and enforce time limits.
Crowley said that the candidates’ agreement wouldn’t stop her from asking follow-ups, and she did so during the debate.
“What about long-term unemployed?” she asked following the candidates’ reply to the first question, from a college student who wondered if he would find a job after graduating.
She also tried to steer the candidates back to the subject when the answer appeared to be wandering, such as when Romney discussed American guns found in Mexico after being asked about an assault rifle ban.
Crowley also surprised some observers with her talkativeness before the debate. Late Monday, she appeared on CNN and was asked by Wolf Blitzer what Obama needed to do avoid a repeat of his first debate performance, widely considered poor.
It was a natural question for CNN’s chief political correspondent, but maybe not for a day before a debate she was moderating.
By contrast, Lehrer, who is semi-retired, turned down requests for interviews a week before moderating the first presidential debate. ABC’s Martha Raddatz, who oversaw the vice presidential debate, also did not talk publicly about the debate beforehand. CBS News’ Bob Schieffer, who is moderating the final presidential debate next week, has purposely stayed away from CBS’ coverage of the first three debates to avoid being put in a position of commenting on the candidates.