Donald Trump’s proposal to stage a presidential debate without a moderator is prompting a public debate over whether that could even work, ahead what could be one of the most-watched and most important campaign face-offs in recent history.
In an interview with CNBC earlier this week Trump suggested that the debates’ moderators, who have already been selected and announced, should be nixed.
“I think maybe we should have no moderator,” Trump said. “Let Hillary and I sit there and just debate, because I think the system is being rigged so it’s going to be a very unfair debate.”
“Trump’s suggestion shouldn’t be dismissed out of hand,” said Republican political consultant Keith Appell, citing the controversy during a 2012 debate where Candy Crowley refuted Mitt Romney’s claim that Barack Obama did not call the Benghazi attack an “act of terror.”
“The clear consensus is that Mitt Romney beat Barack Obama in the first debate,” Appell said. Then Crowley “clearly helped Barack Obama in that second debate and interjected herself where she should not have.”
“I think it would be quite entertaining for Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton to just debate each other in a Lincoln-Douglas type setting,” Appell said.
But others warn that an unmoderated debate would turn into a free-for-all.
“I envision a debate without moderators as two hours of bickering,” Democratic strategist Brad Bannon said. “If there is going to be any discussion of the issues, it’s going to be the moderator who is going to drive the conversation that way.”
It’s not the first time Trump himself has complained about debate moderators. Trump got into a heated public feud with Fox. News’ Megyn Kelly over her questioning of the candidate at the first Republican primary debate. Later Trump boycotted a Fox-hosted debate just before the Iowa Caucuses.
Pundits say the high stakes is one reason Trump is pushing to change some of the rules.
“It’s the first time any voter will ever get to see Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump side by side on the same stage,” said Democratic strategist Mary Anne Marsh.
“Depending on the polls you’re looking at, somewhere between 15 and 20 percent of the voters are still undecided,” said Bannon. “That means there are a lot of voters who are going to make up their minds while watching.”
Strategists said there is always the possibility that Trump could threaten another boycott, but said doing so would be perilous.
“It will look like he couldn’t stand the heat, so he got out the kitchen,” Bannon said.
“I don’t think he’ll do that again,” said Appell. “He learned from (Iowa) and he might have won that caucus had be gone.”
But Trump’s call to remove moderators may simply be an attempt by the Republican to exert some influence over the event in the days leading up to it.
“He’s working the ref more than anything,” Marsh said. “Donald Trump has consistently tried to influence what the debate looks like.”
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