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The 1st Debate: Romney, Big Bird and Silent Jim Lehrer

The first presidential debate is now behind us, and most pundits seem to agree that a fired up Mitt Romney came out ahead of a more demure President Obama. But that’s likely not what most media watchers will remember about the debate.

That would come when Romney, answering a question about his deficit-reduction plan, told moderator Jim Lehrer of PBS NewsHour that he would cut government funding to the public broadcaster.

“I’m sorry, Jim, I’m going to stop the subsidy to PBS,” he said. “I like PBS. I love Big Bird. I actually like you, too. But I’m not going to keep spending money on things, borrowing money from China to pay for it.”

Twitter immediately seized on the comment, spawning at least two Twitter feeds — @BigBirdRomney and @FiredBigBird – and causing #SaveBigBird to trend worldwide.

For others watching, Lehrer seemed not to have made a good case for himself. The moderator was widely panned by viewers and pundits for failing to keep the candidates to the set time limits and allowing them to talk over him when he tried to interrupt.

On MSNBC immediately following the debate, Rachel Maddow didn’t declare a winner but did name a loser – the debate format.

“In terms of how the overall debate unfolded, I personally do not know who won this debate,” she said. “I do know that we saw this debate format die a very painful death on camera tonight… the debate format was just dismantled – the format and I think the moderator, with all due respect to Jim Lehrer.”

Lehrer’s performance earned him his own parody Twitter feed @SilentJimLehrer, which has over 9,000 followers.

But those who read our Sept. 24 cover story on the presidential moderators shouldn’t have been surprised by Lehrer’s tactic. In that story Lehrer, who moderated his 12th debate Wednesday night, told B&C that an invisible moderator is a successful moderator.

“This is not an opportunity for a moderator to demonstrate his or her expertise, his or her toughness, his or her anything, other than the ability to facilitate a meaningful exchange between the candidates about things that matter,” he said. “It is not a way to audition for a better job. In fact, the more invisible the moderator is, the more successful the moderator is.”