Last updated: February 17. 2013 5:28AM - 64 Views

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JAMES CHARLES Lehrer will gavel America to order at 9 p.m. Wednesday from inside the University of Denver's Magness Arena for the first debate between President Barack Obama and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney.

At that moment, Lehrer, 78, executive editor of the "PBS NewsHour," will become moderator of an unprecedented 12th presidential debate.

His first was in 1988 when Vice President George H.W. Bush faced off against Massachusetts Democratic Gov. Michael Dukakis at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, N.C.

As Dukakis looked on, Lehrer, 54, directed his first question to Bush: "The polls say the number-one domestic issue to a majority of voters is drugs. What is there about these times that drives or draws so many Americans to use drugs?"

Lehrer also moderated two of three presidential debates in 1992, two between President Bill Clinton and Sen. Robert Dole in '96, and the three in 2000 featuring Vice President Al Gore and Texas Gov. George W. Bush.

Lehrer says the intense responsibility of officiating a presidential debate, upon which so much could depend, is "like walking down the blade of a knife."

Lehrer is in charge. The questions are his. Follow-ups are his. And the six topics for discussion during Wednesday's 90-minute, domestic policy debate – divided into 15 minute-segments: economy I, economy II, economy III, health care, the role of government and governing – are all his.

It's difficult to "win" an American presidential debate, given the knowledge, skill and experience of the men and women disciplined enough to scale the cliffs leading to that exclusive terrain atop the presidential debate stage. But debates are easy to lose.

Roughly 132 million Americans cast presidential ballots in 2008. More than half that number tuned to the first presidential debate between Senators Barack Obama and John McCain, with millions more catching all or part of their two subsequent meetings.

For President Obama and Gov. Romney the stakes could not be higher – as the first presidential debate almost always draws the largest television audience.

As Lehrer and his wife Kate, the only person with prior knowledge of his questions, exit the Magness Arena, an equally important "post-debate-debate" already will have commenced.

In adjoining rooms off the event floor, campaign operatives and the nation's news media will engage in lengthy post-debate analysis that will extend through the Sunday morning news shows.

Did Romney exceed expectations? Did Obama fall short? Was a knockout punch delivered, a home run hit or a candidacy-ending gaffe uttered by either man?

Were ties straight, color appropriate, knots centered, on white shirts or blue? It's all been tested, discussed and decided.

The endless nitpicking that follows is fine with Lehrer: "When a debate is over that I moderate, I want everybody to say you have seen and heard the candidates for president on the same stage, at the same time, talking about the same things, and you can judge them, not just on content because by then people already know about the issues. We want to take a measure of the person."

Obama will need to be convincing when discussing the economy. While Romney will be forced to defend the Ryan-Romney plan to undo Medicare, which placed a lid on Romney's poll numbers and has given Obama a perceptible lead in every swing state.

Gov. Romney needs a breakout night in front of an enormous television audience. The president needs to maintain America's confidence.

This is reality TV.

When Jim Lehrer finishes blade-walking on Wednesday evening he will have moderated his last presidential debate, he says. To have been selected by the Commission on Presidential Debates and approved by candidates of both parties 12 times in six presidential cycles over 24 years is a tribute to Lehrer's excellence and a record of DiMaggio-esque proportions unlikely to be surpassed.

Tune in and watch. Nobody does it better.

Obama will need to be convincing when discussing the economy. While Romney will be forced to defend the Ryan-Romney plan to undo Medicare …

Kevin Blaum's column on government, life and politics appears every Sunday. Contact him at kblaum@timesleader.com.

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