CNN's Candy Crowley embraces the 'optics' of her role in tonight's presidential debate

CNN's Candy Crowley embraces the 'optics' of her role in tonight's presidential debate
Candy Crowley in the CNN Grill during the 2012 Republican National Convention in Tampa, Fl. (David S. Holloway for CNN)

Two weeks ago, the conventional wisdom was that televised presidential debates weren't going to matter much this year.

Then a TV debate took place in Denver on Oct. 3, and we are still talking about Big Bird being threatened, moderator Jim Lehrer getting steamrolled, President Barack Obama under-performing and the polls flipping from "done deal" to "game on" overnight.

Voters knew the debates mattered, even as the media and political wise men and women were telling them they didn't. More than 67 million viewers tuned in for the first debate — for once making an event other than a professional football game the most watched show on television that week.

In Baltimore, 688,835 adults watched the University of Denver debate between Obama and GOP challenger Mitt Romney. By way of comparison, the largest TV audience for a Baltimore Orioles playoff game was 366,540 adults who watched Wednesday night's 12-inning loss to the New York Yankees. And it seemed as if everybody in Baltimore saw that game — or, at least, claims they did.

Obama and Romney will face off for a second time Tuesday night — this one taking place in a town hall format at Hofstra University with CNN's Candy Crowley as moderator, the first woman in that role since Carole Simpson 20 years ago. At first, Crowley says, she didn't think much about the gender aspect of her selection by the Commission on Presidential Debates. But public reaction has changed her mind.

"I was honored and happy and all of those things when they asked me," CNN's chief political correspondent said in an interview last week. "But I did not think, 'And I'm a woman.' Because it's not like you wake up in the morning and think, 'I'm a man.' It just is what you are, and you live your life."

But, she adds, "I came to understand that it does matter in a way that I didn't see at first. And I came to understand that through my emails, through folks who approached me in the grocery store, on the street, at the conventions, at the debates — folks who would hug me, young women, old women, their husbands, their sons, their fiancees or whoever who would say, 'We're so excited a woman's going to do this.'"

Crowley says she does not "play down the optics of this" any more now that she sees the larger symbolic import of standing on that stage Tuesday night.

"It matters to minorities that you can see someone doing something you want to do and, hopefully, succeeding at it," she explains. "It helps if you are a young woman to be able to look up on that stage and say, 'Wow, a female's doing this. I can do this, too.'"

It also matters in terms of age, says the 63-year-old anchor of the cable channel's "State of the Union" Sunday-morning issues show.

"And for older women, the sense I get from them is this kind of, 'Wow. I can still be at the top of my game. I can still get recognized. I can still contribute.'"

But don't such gender and generational issues add to what is already a lot of pressure? All eyes are going to be on this debate, to see how Obama responds after one of his few major TV failures. And Lehrer's poor performance has put the moderator's role under the spotlight in an already white-hot partisan media climate.

"In terms of pressure and all that kind of stuff, I'm self-pressurized," Crowley says. "I totally don't need other people to pressure me. I can do it myself. So, I don't think it's adding to the pressure."

Crowley, who says she will prep right up to Tuesday morning, is clear about her goals and how she expects to be judged.

"My goals are to have a debate or conversation or whatever you want to call it between these two guys that adds to the body of knowledge that voters have," she says. "And I want to have a debate that discusses issues of interest to the voters, so that they come away knowing more about what their choice is rather than being more confused."

She hopes people will judge her by that standard, but says: "People are going to judge under whatever their criteria are. Sometimes, it's a political criteria. Sometimes, it's just, 'Boy, she did a lousy job. She should have asked them this, that or the other thing.'"

Crowley says her situation differs from those of Lehrer and ABC's Martha Raddatz, who moderated the vice-presidential debate. Because of the town hall format, most of the questions will be asked by undecided voters in the hall who have been selected by the Gallup Organization. Still, she will have follow-ups.

The commission members "want this to be a town hall meeting," she says. "They want the undecided voters to get a chance to ask these candidates their questions. ... I can follow up or say, 'They asked oranges; you answered apples. Could you, like, try to answer oranges?' You know, sort of the enforcer kind of thing."

What about letting the candidates ignore time limits and other rules the way Lehrer did?"What I think Jim was talking about was trying to get them to engage with each other and not with him. … When the conversation's going, you can't just stop it, and go, 'Whoops, sorry, bell rang.' It's not school."

And if Obama or Romney is flatout lying?

"Look, these are two grown men," Crowley says. "And if there are two grown men who should know what's going on — or what should go on in this country — it's them. So, I'm not sure either one of them needs me to defend them or go after the other guy or whatever."

Crowley says such TV debates, like interviews on her Sunday morning show, "tend to be organic," and you can't predict or anticipate all that will happen — especially when it comes to live TV.

"Am I going to catch everything they say that is wrong?" she asks rhetorically. "No. Should I? Actually, I think, President Obama can figure out when Mitt Romney's wrong, and Mitt Romney can figure out when Obama's wrong."

But, she adds, "That doesn't mean I shouldn't. I'm just telling you it's an organic thing. That's the way it works on the Sunday show. ... You plan one thing, and something else happens. So, there's not a lot of promising you can do about what's going to happen until you see what happens."

The second presidential debate is scheduled for 9 p.m. Tuesday at Hofstra University in Hempstead, N.Y.