WASHINGTON - President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden are spending time honing their skills ahead of their first debate on Sept. 29 at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio.
Also busy preparing is Chris Wallace, host of “Fox News Sunday.” He will be the moderator, selected by The Commission on Presidential Debates, a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization that has sponsored the debates since 1987. It is Wallace’s second time as a presidential debate moderator.
Jim Lehrer holds the record for moderating 12 presidential debates. In 1996 and 2000, the late anchor of the “PBS NewsHour” moderated all three debates.
“Some of the tips that Jim Lehrer had, for example, if somebody says, ‘I've got a seven-point plan for that.’ He would say, ‘Well, give me your first three points,” said Mary Kate Cary, a senior fellow at the University of Virginia’s Miller Center, where she saw Lehrer lead a workshop on moderating debates.
Cary said Lehrer explained that “if you ask a long and complicated question, you will get a long and complicated answer.”
WATCH: Debate moderators
Some experts believe a moderator’s job goes beyond asking questions.
“I think the most important job of the moderator is follow-up. When they give an answer, or if there is a debate occurring, to know the appropriate questions to ask in the follow-up,” said John Koch, debate director at Vanderbilt University.
According to Cary, Lehrer would prepare by trying to “know everything that you possibly can about the people who are debating and all their positions so that if someone says something about a certain policy, you know immediately whether they're making news, and you can react and say, ‘Oh, you've never said that before,’ and sort of point that out to the audience.”
Fact vs. fiction
The role of the moderator as a fact-checker is “quite controversial,” according to Jennifer Mercieca, associate professor of communications, at Texas A&M University.
“In 2012, there was a huge controversy with (moderator) Candy Crowley. She fact-checked (presidential candidate Mitt) Romney during the debate. It had sort of been a tense back and forth between the two candidates, and she intervened to try to sort of move along the conversation. There was a huge outcry on the right for her doing that,” Mercieca said.
Fact-checking should be the candidates’ job, according to Koch.
“If Biden says something that's not true, Trump should say something. If Trump says something that’s not true, Biden should say something. I don't necessarily think that's a job/role of the moderator during the 90 minutes of debate.” he said.
When met with an untrue statement from a candidate, Lehrer thought “the moderator should pause and say, ‘I'd like to give you an opportunity to clarify what you just said.’ Or turn to the opponent and say, ‘Would you like to react to what he just said?’” according to Cary, who recalled Lehrer saying there is “the danger of appearing as a partisan” if he acted as a fact-checker.
While Wallace moderated a presidential debate in the 2016 election cycle, the other 2020 moderators are all doing it for the first time.
Steve Scully of C-SPAN moderates the second presidential debate Oct.15. It will be held in Miami and is a town hall format. Undecided voters will ask the candidates questions. Scully was the backup moderator for all the 2016 debates.
Kristen Welker, who covers the White House for NBC News, moderates the third presidential debate Oct. 22 in Nashville, Tennessee.
There will be one vice-presidential debate — Oct. 7 in Salt Lake City, Utah. Susan Page, Washington bureau chief for USA Today, will be the moderator.
“I think this is a good group of well-respected journalists,” said Cary. She recalls the best advice from Lehrer.
“The quote that I always think is, ‘If anybody is quoting me, the moderator, afterwards, I have failed,” she said.