WASHINGTON When President Barack Obama and Mitt Romney walk out tonight for their second debate, they won't be the only people in the spotlight.
The other person with a microphone and with a potentially major voice in how the evening goes will be the moderator, journalist Candy Crowley.
Moderators have taken on an outsized importance in this presidential campaign, described by partisans as using their unique role to push the results one way or the other. Obama aides blamed first debate moderator Jim Lehrer for somehow letting Romney win. Romney backers worried openly that vice presidential debate moderator Martha Raddatz would be biased because Obama attended her wedding in 1991.
Now comes the second presidential debate. The race is virtually even. The White House hangs in the balance. And Crowley will decide who in a live audience at Hofstra University in Hempstead, N.Y., can ask questions and whether she needs to ask questions of her own.
Crowley said she plans to ask follow-up questions and press the candidates if they don't answer, a hands-on approach neither campaign likes. They'd rather she just hold the microphone for audience members to do the talking in what's being billed as a town hall-style event more than a real debate.
If it's normal for politicians to try to limit the questions, it's second nature for a journalist such as Crowley to reserve the right to question.
"She's going to do her own thing and not worry too much about the critics," said Ed Henry, a former colleague of Crowley's at CNN and now chief White House correspondent for Fox News.
"The critics are always going to say that you're either too much in their faces or too passive," he said. "You're not going to please almost anyone. But I think she's grounded and she'll do a fabulous job."
The 63-year-old Crowley, CNN's chief political correspondent and host of "State of the Union," is a veteran field reporter. She has covered presidential politics for decades and is known for being unpretentious, chatty and a quick wit. She's a journalist, not a celebrity TV personality or a provocateur who stirs up fights just for ratings.
"There's something old-school reporter about her," said Alan Schroeder, author of "Presidential Debates: Fifty Years of High-Risk TV." "She seems like somebody in that vein of tough-talking journalists who have kind of seen it all. I think it's going to be hard to pull one over on her."
Crowley said she expects to guide the conversation and ask follow-ups. She also plans to press the candidates to actually answer the questions asked.
"Either go to the next question or say, 'Wait a second, wait a second, they asked oranges, you responded apples, could you please respond to oranges?' " she said. "Or, 'Hey, while we're on this, could you please explain why this happened or what do you think about this?' "
Statements like that reportedly alarmed the campaigns of Obama and Romney, who complained to the Commission on Presidential Debates that they agreed to a plan that did not envision the moderator asking follow-up questions of the candidates.
Crowley did not sign that agreement.
Obama spokeswoman Jen Psaki refused Monday to comment on the secret negotiations over the format of the debate. The Romney campaign would not comment.
Crowley is the first woman in 20 years chosen to moderate a presidential debate. Crowley said she thinks of herself as a journalist, not a female journalist. But the reaction she has received changed her perspective.
"Young women and older women would hug me and say, 'I'm so excited for this, I'm so excited,' " Crowley said. "When it feels like a barrier breaker and it's new to a generation of women to see a female on TV talking to these candidates, then I accept that it matters. That the optics of it matter."
The last woman to moderate a presidential debate was Carole Simpson, then of ABC News, who moderated a 1992 town hall-style debate among Bill Clinton, George H.W. Bush and Ross Perot. Simpson has complained that she and Crowley were both marginalized by being assigned a format where audience members ask the questions.
The choice of Crowley came after three high school girls collected 170,000 signatures on an online petition urging the Commission on Presidential Debates to choose a female moderator.