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Wolf Blitzer Fails as Moderator in the CNN GOP Debate in Florida

In the wake of tonight’s presidential debate, the four participants (Mitt Romney, Newt Gingrich, Rick Santorum, and Ron Paul) will, of course, be heavily scrutinized based on their performance. However, in any debate, there is always a person sitting just on the outside, prodding, poking, and (hopefully) controlling the flow of question and answer: the moderator. In this case, Wolf Blitzer was the man behind the microphone.

Some of the previous GOP debate moderators, such as John King and Brian Williams, were heavily criticized following their performances. Conservative commentators slammed King for even asking Gingrich about his marital history. King himself said that he stood by the question, however, during the debate, he allowed Gingrich to bully him off of the topic. Williams, meanwhile, has been absolutely lambasted by liberals for being too passive. He also was, rightfully, criticized for attempting to silence the audience. Blitzer did his best to avoid some of the same pitfalls. But did he succeed? And, perhaps more importantly, did he live up to his own goals as a debate moderator?

Covering important issues. Grade: D

This is definitely Blitzer’s responsibility. He’s the one who asks the questions. And he didn’t ask many of significance. Where was foreign policy outside of Latin America? Job creation? Reducing inequality? Energy? The Supreme Court? We can spend time on moon colonies, but not on the Middle East?

Giving all four candidates equal attention. Grade: D+

Blitzer, like Brian Williams before him, fell woefully short in this category. Most of the debate could have been called the Gingrich and Romney Show. It’s like Santorum and Paul are the JV team while Romney and Gingrich are on Varsity. He enabled the front-runners to snipe at one another for most of the night on a wide array of topics.

When Paul was asked about Gingrich and Romney’s investments, he replied, “That subject doesn’t interest me a whole lot.” Indeed, why would Blitzer ask one candidate about the other two? How does that help the viewer understand the candidates?

Controlling the debate. Grade: C+

Blitzer, for the most part, allowed the candidates to speak on their own terms. He acted largely as an impartial observer who pulled the strings at the right times. Sometimes, Wolf was so effective that he was hardly noticeable. He also managed to stand up to Gingrich’s bullying tactics. However, occasionally the candidates would get carried away, and Blitzer continued to act removed — as though he didn’t care that the candidates were veering off-topic.

Keeping the candidates honest. Grade: B

Outside of allowing Romney and Santorum to repeat Politifact’s lie of the year in 2010!, Wolf did a very good job of promoting honesty. Once, he even stopped the debate in order to fact check Romney’s claim that he was unaware of one of his campaign ads, which was excellent. This was Blitzer’s strongest trait of the night.

Showing how these four men will operate should they reach the office of the president. Grade: F

Gingrich pointed out that Blitzer focused on the candidates' personal decisions rather than on the issues (even though he was more than happy to delve into personal attacks). This was the biggest problem with Blitzer as moderator. We learned about what the candidates have done in their personal, financial lives, how their wives would act as first ladies, whether they would start a colony on the moon (no, seriously, this took up like fifteen minutes of the debate), what they thought of Ronald Reagan, how religion influenced their lives, and how they might beat Obama in 2012. But we didn’t learn enough about what they would do in office. These debates should be about how these men would make good presidents. This one was not. It was a debate filled with puffball questions and irrelevant sniping. And Blitzer allowed it to be that way.

Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

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