Bob Schieffer and presidential debate: Will this moderator enforce the rules?

Bob Schieffer moderates the third presidential debate, on foreign policy, Monday evening. If the first two debates are any indication, the challenge for him will be containing the discussion.

Evan Agostini/AP/File
Bob Schieffer and presidential debate: Will he be able to contain the discussion Monday night between President Obama and GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney?

At 9 p.m. Eastern time Monday night, President Obama and GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney will clash in their third and final debate at Lynn University in Boca Raton, Fla.

The subject this time is foreign policy, and like the first two debates, there are rules the moderator – Bob Schieffer of CBS News – is supposed to enforce. The format calls for six 15-minute segments, each devoted to one international topic. Mr. Schieffer himself got to pick these subjects, and they are as follows:

America’s role in the world.

• Our longest war – Afghanistan and Pakistan.

• Red lines – Israel and Iran.

• The changing Middle East and the new face of terrorism, Part 1.

• The changing Middle East and the new face of terrorism, Part 2.

• The rise of China and tomorrow’s world.

Schieffer is supposed to open each segment with a question and then allow two minutes apiece for the candidates to respond. After this, he’s supposed to use the balance of the 15-minute segment to “facilitate a discussion on the topic,” according to the Commission on Presidential Debates.

Of course, this isn’t going to be Foreign Policy 101 with a bunch of students who don’t want to answer. “What should we do about Hezbollah? Mr. President? Governor Romney? Bueller? Anyone?”

Facilitating a discussion will be the least of moderator Schieffer’s problems. If the first two debates are any indication, it’s containing the discussion that’s going to be the challenge. Generally speaking, the first rule of political debates is to not answer the question that’s been asked, but answer the question you wish had been asked. Given that, we bet “Libya” comes up within seconds of Mr. Romney beginning his first response, as he steers the conversation to his campaign’s accusations that the administration mishandled the situation surrounding the Benghazi attack, which killed US Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other Americans.

Mr. Obama is sure to have a prepared response to this, and it could be down the rabbit hole from there unless Schieffer gets them to broaden the horizon of the discussion.

If any reporter can do that, though, he might be the one. He’s old school, like Jim Lehrer, the moderator for the first debate. This means he believes the point is for the candidates to talk, not for him to strut.

“The debates are not about the moderator; they’re about the candidates,” Schieffer told The Palm Beach Post in an interview published Sunday.

How old school is he? He covered the tragic assassination of President Kennedy as a young reporter for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram in 1963. (He often tells the tale of how he gave Lee Harvey Oswald’s mother a ride to the Dallas police station after she called the paper looking for a lift. Less often he gets around to adding the fact that he had to borrow a car to do it because his own, a Triumph TR4 sports car, wasn’t really suitable for the job.)

But Schieffer’s also a modern TV personality, like second debate moderator Candy Crowley. As host of CBS’s “Face the Nation,” he’s comfortable in cutting interviewees off and trying to keep them on point.

“You’re a ref and you don’t want to have one guy filibuster,” Schieffer said in The Palm Beach Post interview. “You want both people to get an opportunity to state their position.”

Does this mean the third debate will have a tone between the freewheeling first and the Crowley-controlled second? We can only wait and see. Unlike many Washington reporters, Schieffer is liked and respected by folks on both sides of the political aisle, so neither Democrats nor Republicans have groused about him in advance of the fight in Florida.

A native Texan, Schieffer graduated from Texas Christian University and served a stint as a communications officer in the Air Force. After his run as a print reporter in Fort Worth, he jumped to TV and served as a local anchor before catching on with CBS in 1969.

In Washington he’s covered the White House, the Pentagon, the State Department, and Congress. He credits his long-term survival in a cutthroat business to all the intramural politics he avoided while out of the office covering his beats.

His 2004 memoir, “This Just In: What I Couldn’t Tell You on TV,” is a breezy and informative look at the news business that’s well worth your time if you’re interested in the subject.

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