Robert Bianco, USA TODAY
Candy Crowley intended to make the most of Tuesday's town hall format, and if that meant taking the candidates out of their comfort zones, then so be it.
Nobody puts Candy in a corner.
The candidates tried. Before Tuesday's town hall presidential debate, the campaigns voiced complaints in USA TODAY and elsewhere about moderator Candy Crowley's stated intention to ask follow-up questions and prod for better answers, saying it violated their agreement as to how the debate would work. In their view, Crowley's job was to call on the questioners in the audience and say "next" when time ran out.
They wanted a silent time-keeper. Instead, they got a moderator who was determined to allow the people gathered at the town hall meeting to get all their questions asked and answered fully and honestly - and was willing to assert herself to get it done.
Some will say she over-asserted herself. At one point already much-discussed in social media, she told Governor Romney he was wrong when he disagreed with one of President Obama's statements on Libya. Almost from the moment she fact-checked herself into the conversation, she tried to pull back out, but by that point she had probably already infuriated Romney supporters and debate purists.
While that may have been her most memorable moment, the tone was set from the first question, from a student who asked about jobs and unemployment. The candidates answered, and when they were done, Crowley asked one of those "forbidden" follow-ups, turning to Governor Romney and President Obama with "Let me ask you for a more immediate answer." After each candidate answered, she was ready to move on to the next question, and would not allow Governor Romney to stop her, despite his strenuous efforts to do so.
At that point, those who wanted a free-flowing debate, with the candidates battling back and forth and the moderator laying back, were probably convinced they weren't going to get it. And then the candidates began arguing over the price of gas and the current energy policies, and Crowley let them go. She did, that is, until she felt they had gone on long enough, and then she stopped them - pointing out, politely, that she was in charge of interpreting and enforcing the rules, not them.
It wasn't easy. Both candidates tried to talk over her, Romney perhaps more so. But she pushed back, nicely but firmly, and generally got her way. Though, to be sure, it probably helped that "her way" often included allowing them to go way over the time limits.
Crowley's challenge, of course, was different than that faced by Jim Lehrer and Martha Raddatz at the first two debates. She was not just operating as a debate moderator; she was in charge of making the town hall format work. She let discussions go over time, but she refused to let them run on at the expense of the audience. She did ask follow-ups, but they stayed within the confines of the original question, and compared to those asked by Raddatz, they were not as direct.
The candidates, of course, are not the only ones who might have preferred a less-active moderator - many viewers probably would have as well. There's no question Crowley annoyed them, just as there's no question that the supporters of whoever is deemed the loser of this debate will immediately try to shift some of the blame on to Crowley.
My guess is she can take it.