It's tricky, we know. Because in the past we've suggested that what viewers and voters don't want is for the debate moderator to insert himself/herself too much into the proceedings; that people don't tune in to watch them.
That said, moderators ought to fee free to step in, politely, and redirect candidates when they so blatantly ignore the stated question. Palin just did that when Gwen Ifill asked her what her true Achilles heel was. (When it was his turn, Biden at least used the basic framework of the question to form his response.)
The debates are already so tightly scripted in terms of the ticking clock, why waste time by having candidates give answers to questions that were never asked?
The McCain camp's attacks on Gwen Ifill may have paid off. As many reporters have noted (see for example, Ambinder) Sarah Palin has ducked several questions. She even announced near the begining of the debate that she wouldn't bother answering Ifill's questions if she didn't want to. And Ifill doesn't really seem to be pressing her to do so.
The first AP article about tonight's debate notes that "Palin said Obama had voted to raise taxes 94 times" -- but fails to mention that number has beed widely debunked. Factcheck.org, for example, calls it "inflated and misleading" and "padded" and noted the figure includes "Double, Triple and Quadruple Counting."
But the Associated Press uncritically reports Palin's charge. Rather than fact-checking Palin, the AP touted her folksiness:
As is her custom on the campaign, she spoke in familiar terms, saying "betcha" rather than "bet you" and "gonna" rather than "going to."
Apparently Marc Ambinder didn't get the memo:
09:29: Palin, again avoiding the question, decides to bring up drilling. Good for her, but the context is weird, and she's not explaining herself very well.
It's "good" for Palin to avoid the question?
09:20: E-mail bottleneck: I just got 5 fact-check e-mails from the Obama campaign...can't look at 'em all when they arrive at once.
Ok ... but what about the content? Was the Obama campaign right? Did Palin say something false? Isn't that a little more important than the logistical questions of when the Obama campaign clicked "Send" on their email?
Chris Mattews was semi-obsessed about how Joe Biden should act when he and Sarah Palin came out for the debate tonight. Should he be a gentleman and help her with her chair? Or would that be too much?
Uh Chris, they're standing.
Or more specifically, the pre-dates. Answer: It's pure speculation. Actually, it's tactics wrapped in speculation. Or speculation about tactics. Either way, it's fun and easy for the press to play.
It's the same reason the press wallowed in the pre-VP announcement announcements, spending days and even weeks playing the what-if game. It's the reason the press gorged on the convention coverage, specially in Denver as pundits speculated non-stop about how the primetime speeches, especially by the Clintons would play out.
The press in this campaign has really elevated speculation into an art form. Because why? Because it requires no actual reporting. It often doesn't even requiring calling people up for quotes anymore.
Take this pre-debate piece today from the Chicago Tribune. It's nothing but speculation about tactics. This is what now passes for analysis.
Tribune tip for Biden: "please don't smile." Tribune tip for Palin: "Be likable, but not perky."
It's theater criticism run amok. And that's why the press loves debate season.
But if Palin will be under an intense spotlight thanks to doubts about her basic competency, Biden's challenge will be to not prove just how much he knows.
Seriously? Joe Biden is supposed to avoid showing that he has knowledge? Because apparently if there's anything you don't want in the person who is a heartbeat away from the presidency, it's ... knowledge.
Has there ever been a dumber standard set for a debate participant?
Two weeks ago, I noted that in previewing the 2000 debates, the Associated Press asserted: "Gore, who has been staging mock debates under a massive model shark at Mote Marine Laboratory in Florida, cannot afford self-aggrandizing exaggeration (as in, 'I took the initiative in creating the Internet'), mean attacks or smarty-pants condescension."
Watching tonight's debate previews on MSNBC and CNN, it's striking that the journalists participating don't seem to care whether Sarah Palin tells the truth tonight. After all, this is a candidate who introduced herself to America with a false claim exaggerating her role in stopping the "bridge to nowhere" -- then, when caught, she kept right on making the very same false claim.
Yet the media -- once hypersensitive to the mere possiblity that Al Gore might be guilty of "self-aggrandizing exaggeration" and ever-alert for anything a candidate might do that plays into preexisting weaknesses -- don't seem to care whether Palin tells the truth tonight.
UPDATE: Here's another example: The Washington Post's Chris Cillizza offers his take on "What to Watch For" tonight. No mention of the possibility of Palin making a false claim. And little more than passing mention of anything substantive, for that matter.