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The 3rd Debate: Schieffer Gets Out of the Way

Third time’s a charm?

Monday night’s third and final presidential debate seemed to be the first one in the 2012 election cycle where the talk during and after didn’t focus primarily on the moderator.

That’s because CBS News’ Bob Schieffer took a mostly hands off approach in Boca Raton, Fla., more akin to the moderating of Jim Lehrer than Martha Raddatz. But unlike Lehrer, who tried futilely to interrupt the candidates, Schieffer rarely interjected.

Schieffer’s tendency to sit back and let the candidates talk did open up the door for each of them to shift away from foreign policy, the topic of Monday’s debate, to domestic issues like the economy that are more likely to swing voters, a point which Schieffer was criticized for.

“I did know this was a debate about foreign policy. I was a little bit surprised, as I just said, about the fact that both really did want to talk about economic issues. I kind of let them go on that,” Schieffer said Tuesday in a interview on CBS This Morning. “When we let that run for a while, I tried to get them back on more specific foreign policy questions. But I found that quite interesting, and to me, indicative of what they think the campaign ought to be about. This is their campaign. And I thought people ought to have an opportunity to see what they thought it should be about.”

Schieffer can be praised for keeping both candidates to almost equal speaking time, with President Obama speaking for 35 more seconds than Mitt Romney, according to CNN’s onscreen debate clock. Past moderators were criticized by conservatives for allowing Obama, who speaks more slowly and with more pauses, to eclipse Romney’s speaking time by several minutes.

Perhaps one reason why the moderator played a less contentious role in Monday’s debate was that the candidates themselves were less contentious on the issues of foreign policy. Unlike on domestic issues like taxes, Obamacare and balanced budgets, Romney mostly agreed with Obama on foreign policy topics.

We’ll find out later this afternoon if  the lack of fireworks between the two candidates stifled ratings for the debate, although they will likely be down for much simpler reasons – Monday’s nights competing telecasts of ESPN Monday Night Football and MLB’s NLCS Game 7.