Debate Talk: Too Hot, Too Cold, Or Just Right?

After Tuesday night's presidential debate, the journalists and commentators in the Beauty Shop weigh in on whether the verbal punches and tough tone between the candidates might turn off female voters.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Coming up, Kiese Laymon is now a professor of English, so it might surprise you to know that, before he was old enough to vote, he either pulled a gun or had guns trained on him five times. We'll hear more about this in his provocative essay, "How to Slowly Kill Yourself and Others in America: A Remembrance." We'll hear from him in just a few minutes.

But, first, we head to the Beauty Shop. That's where we get a fresh look at the week's news with a panel of women writers, journalists and commentators. Sitting in the chairs for a new do this week are Viviana Hurtado, blogger-in-chief at the website, The Wise Latina Club. Bridget Johnson is Washington, D.C. editor for P.J. Media. That's the conservative libertarian commentary and news website. They are here in Washington, D.C. and, with us from New York, Keli Goth, political correspondent for TheRoot.com.

Ladies, thank you for joining us once again.

VIVIANA HURTADO: Hi, Michel.

BRIDGET JOHNSON: Thanks for having us.

KELI GOFF: Thanks for inviting us.

MARTIN: So, of course, we want to talk about the debate. President Obama and Republican candidate Mitt Romney's second meeting last night and you could not help but notice that there was an explicit appeal to women. Here's a slice of President Obama's remarks on a question posed by a member of the audience. Remember, this was a town hall debate where the audience members posed the questions. These were supposed to be uncommitted voters. They were all gathered by the Gallup organization and this is - the question was - what he would address pay inequality.

(SOUNDBITE OF PRESIDENTIAL DEBATE)

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Women are increasingly the breadwinners in the family. This is not just a women's issue, this is a family issue, this is a middle class issue and that's why we've got to fight for it.

MARTIN: And Mitt Romney, former Massachusetts governor - Mitt Romney responded by highlighting how he included women in his cabinet when he was Massachusetts governor. This is him.

(SOUNDBITE OF PRESIDENTIAL DEBATE)

MITT ROMNEY: We took a concerted effort to go out and find women who had backgrounds that could be qualified to become members of our cabinet. I went to a number of women's groups and said: Can you help us find folks? And they brought us whole binders full of women.

MARTIN: Now, as you heard earlier, binders now has its own Twitter account and Tumblr site. It's a little scary. Bridget Johnson, so what did you think of the candidates' answers to these questions?

JOHNSON: I mean, obviously, the women's vote is going to have a huge impact on the selection, you know, whereas Big Bird was the star of the first debate and Biden's laugh was the star of the vice presidential debate. Binders full of women, you know, making out this time. And the Romney campaign is trying to fire back this morning by sending out emails saying, you know, well, here's Obama's binders of what he hasn't done for women, etc.

MARTIN: Well, yeah. They are. In fact, they're reframe - they already said - I saw an ad immediately after the debate trying to reframe the issue around economic issues, saying, well, you know what? That's all fine, but if you don't have a job, none of that matters, so...

JOHNSON: Right. Right. And, also, you know, I think women are being underestimated as voters here. This assumption - and there was a lot of this post-game analysis right after the debate - that women are being turned off by aggressive candidates. Last night, you know, it was like, sit in your chairs, guys. You know, it was, you know - Romney was rhetorically pursuing Obama from behind the podium and that looked better than Romney chasing Obama around the little red round.

But, you know, it's a stereotypical generalization to say that women are not going to like to see these guys mix it up. This is politics. It's in the mud. And, particularly with all the global challenges that we're facing, people want to see if you're going to fight. I don't think that spirit came across for John McCain in 2008, even though he's one of the greatest fighters for foreign policy in the Senate. But, you know, you can easily cross the line from being assertive to looking like a jerk who likes to fight and I think it was borderline on that last night.

MARTIN: You think it was borderline on that. Keli Goff, what do you think? I mean, you've written about the need for candidates to talk more about some of these issues that people generally associate with women, like access to contraception and pay equality, which did come up last night. So tell me, what was your reaction to it on the substance and the style?

GOFF: Well, right. So, after the first debate, my column noted that, you know, President Obama - if you counted, he said the words education and health care something like 20 times and there is a clear reason for that. Right? Polls show that women voters are more likely to vote on those issues within the context of the economy, whereas men are more likely to vote strictly on words like jobs. And the tickers showed that - right - when you would watch, who was more engaged when you heard those words.

And then, after the first debate, what we saw is that the president lost ground among female voters. Right? So, clearly, he was conscientious of the fact that polls have showed that female voters - female voters and younger voters and his likeability numbers are essentially the only three things that have really kept his campaign afloat and ahead.

So what we saw last night is, finally, women getting some attention, which I said was long overdue and us actually getting some questions on the table. And you could see that Governor Romney was clearly concerned about losing that shift in momentum that he's gained with women voters. How do we know that, Michel? Because, whenever they would talk about Lilly Ledbetter, whenever they'd talk about contraception, they would have moved on to the next topics, the next question and you saw Governor Romney make a point to say, I want to go back to what he just said. That was not true. That does not define my position on contraception. That does not define my position on reproductive rights. That does not define my position on equal pay. You know, and we're talking about Libya at that point and so I'm being slightly facetious because I don't remember what they were talking about next.

But my point is they had moved on to another topic that was in a completely different wheelhouse and, all of a sudden, he wanted to go back to contraception. That says he was worried about those poll numbers because - what have we seen, Michel? We've seen a clear gap with Romney having a lead among male voters, President Obama having a clear lead among women voters.

But the difference is the president's lead among women voters was so significant that Governor Romney's campaign could not win if it stayed at that level. Right? He's gained ground. If it shifts back, he does not win this election, so you could definitely see that concern and - can I just say, for the record, as a woman, it's nice to see candidates concerned about winning our votes.

MARTIN: OK. Viviana, what do you think, both on the style, this whole question of too hot versus too cold and whether that was a particular turnoff?

HURTADO: I think it was just right, Michel.

MARTIN: Was it just right, Viviana?

HURTADO: And, speaking about these leads, I mean, with Latino voters, we heard, certainly, Latino voters care about the economy and jobs and education. Those issues were addressed, but we heard about immigration and speaking about a gap, Latino voters - President Obama beats Governor Romney on a three to one margin in the most recent polls.

And it's interesting because we got to hear about immigration. The president was vulnerable on the broken promise of immigration reform within the first year and self - and deportations that have gone up on his watch, but so was Governor Romney on, certainly, not just his self-deportation program, but also, he used the word, illegals, and that is a word that just set the Latino cyberspace on fire. It was proof for many Latino voters that Governor Romney just doesn't understand Hispanic voters.

MARTIN: So that leads me to the question because the reason it came up is that the people in the audience asked both of those questions. Obviously, these were all questions which were generated by the audience and obviously Candy Crowley, the moderator - she knew. She made it clear, she knew and her team knew what questions were present in the audience and available to be asked, but these were questions that the audience generated.

So the next question I have is, what about the format? Did it advantage one person or the other? And what about Candy's performance? I mean, there was a lot of talk in advance, as you know, particularly among journalists of color, about the lack of diversity among the moderators. And there was some criticism that say - OK. So, Candy Crowley, as the female moderator, gets the hold-the-microphone job. I mean, she doesn't get to generate her own questions, so the first woman to moderate a presidential debate in 20 years and it's still the same job as 20 years ago in the sense that it's the hold the microphone job.

So, Viviana, what about that? I mean, there are people who say that she - mixed reviews on her performance. Your take?

HURTADO: Interesting that Candy decided that she was going to defy the rules and ask follow-up questions, which she did. And, interestingly, I would - Martha Raddatz was like the parent that you feared. Candy was like this big sister - right - that's breaking up the fight between squabbling siblings before they - you know, letting them resolve their differences, but when it got a little too heated, she literally said, can you please take a seat?

I think the interesting thing is that this format did allow the candidates to engage each other on these issues that we've just talked about and now the question is going to be, how is this going to impact turnout? How is this going to register with voters, with undecided voters, what they're hearing and is it going to get them to the polls?

In the case of Latino voters, we've seen that, you know, three to one, Obama is up over Governor Romney, but there's not a lot of enthusiasm, in general, to show up. And so, you know, interestingly, mind the data. Latino electorate - the proportion has increased every single election cycle in three election cycle. The question is, what is it going to be? Is it going to top 60 percent in 2008?

MARTIN: So, Bridget, I understand that, before the debate, you were dismayed by criticism of the moderator and tell us about that. But then I understand that you were not as impressed as you had hoped to be, that you felt she lost control. And I can play a clip after you've given your answer. I'll just play a clip to give people a sense of why some people are saying that, but go ahead.

JOHNSON: Yeah. The pre-outrage that was shown towards the female debate moderators compared to the guy that we've had, and then Bob Schieffer next week, has just really been marked in this campaign. I mean, you know, like you said, Crowley's the second woman in 20 years to moderate a presidential debate. The focus of Martha Raddatz before the VP debate was that Obama was at her wedding in 1991, so you know - so people were drawing the conclusion that she was obviously going to be skewed.

MARTIN: And I do - and I also point out that, you know, when Gwen Ifill moderated the vice presidential debate, you know, four years ago, commentary was made about the fact that she was writing a book about black politics, as if that was somehow disqualifying instead of qualifying, unlike the many men who've written books about politics. I found that, you know, also noteworthy.

JOHNSON: Right. And then you saw that Jim Lehrer was criticized for just kind of being a lump and sitting there and not doing anything, so when Crowley comes along and says, I won't be a fly on the wall and I'm actually going to do some follow-up questions and she gets criticized for that. Well, you were just criticizing Lehrer for just sitting there and not doing anything, so I think that...

MARTIN: So how'd she do?

JOHNSON: She did a good job with the follow-up questions. I liked the follow-up questions, but she had a clear lack of control over these two feisty candidates.

MARTIN: All right. Let me give an example of what it is that you're talking about. Here it is.

(SOUNDBITE OF PRESIDENTIAL DEBATE)

CANDY CROWLEY: We're way - we're sort of way off topic here. Governor Romney...

ROMNEY: So, Mr. President...

OBAMA: We're a little off topic here. Come on.

CROWLEY: We are completely off the immigration.

ROMNEY: So let's...

OBAMA: I thought we were talking about immigration. I do want to - I do want to - I do want to make sure that...

ROMNEY: I came back to...

CROWLEY: Mr. President, if I could have you sit down, Governor Romney. Thank you.

MARTIN: Keli, what - I don't know. You know, we're all thinking, ourselves: What would I have done in that situation? Aren't we all?

GOFF: Exactly.

MARTIN: Aren't we all?

GOFF: Exactly, Michel. And, you know, I'm going to say that I actually have much less criticism than a lot of people seem to for Candy and much more criticism for the candidates. I thought both of them had moments where they forgot their manners, frankly. I mean, there's really no other way to put it.

And, you know, I think Romney had a little - a few more of those moments than the president did. But certainly, at the end, you could tell that the president had sort of lost his patience. And if you remember in that long answer he was giving on education, its connection to guns and violence and the whole thing, I think she asked him to sort of stop, like, twice. Right? But it goes back to what you just said. I think we all sort of wonder what we'd do in that situation.

One thing, though, I do want to get back to, though, on your fundamental question about format is one of the things that I've read is that if you go back and look at different campaign debates over the years, one of the things that you will notice is that how they are seated does make a difference, a huge difference in the tone of the debate.

And so, for instance, it's very difficult to be really nasty to someone sitting right next to you at a table. It's a little bit easier when you can kind of walk away and sort of lob the insult from afar. I think all of us have probably been victims of people not liking things we've said on TV or on air or written, and it's a lot easier when you're behind the laptop. There's a little bit of something to that when you're kind of across the room and you can walk over to your stool like you're in a boxing match and go back and sit in your corner.

And so I think that did sort of affect the tone of what we saw last night. I'm not saying it's a bad thing. I'm saying it's just a reality, and I do think that that's part of what Candy was sort of having to grapple with, which is she kind of did end up being like a boxing match referee. And we all know sometimes it's hard to get guys to go back to their corner.

MARTIN: Before we move on to the next topic - because I do want to save some time to talk about Chanel No. Five. I really, really do want to talk about that.

(LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: Keli, you know, on the whole question of too hot, too cold, just right, what is your perspective on this? And just recognizing - I'll just say for myself, I think that addressing people's demeanor and what's behind their demeanor is, to me, the most tricky and culturally fraught...

GOFF: Right.

MARTIN: ...question there is. I mean, in fact, Keli, you wrote about that, you know, channeling my thoughts on this, this whole question of whether somebody's too aggressive or not. I remember - who is it that Bryant Gumbel, the former NBC anchor, once said that the same question posed by Barbara Walters, she would be shrill. He would be - what? Belligerent?

GOFF: Right.

MARTIN: And, you know, Jim Lehrer would be just right. And so I think there's a lot of cultural baggage attached to people's assessment of demeanor. But having said all of that, Keli, your take? Hot, too hot, too cold, just right?

GOFF: Well, I actually don't have a problem with things getting too hot, as long as they're too hot on substance and on policy. What drives me insane is when you see debates - and we've all seen them before - where, you know, you're hearing these veiled references to someone's personal life, veiled references to someone's honesty, veiled references to how someone's family life turned out. You know, that, to me, is a waste of time, because I can go to TMZ just like everyone else can on Google. You know what I mean? I can do that, sort of, to myself.

MARTIN: Well, speaking of TMZ...

(LAUGHTER)

GOFF: Right.

MARTIN: I'm sorry.

GOFF: Oh, great.

MARTIN: I have to do it. I'm sorry. I have to ask. I have to ask, because I just - I think that, you know, given that we've - it's been a rough week. We have to end at a - you know, kind of a - of good smells in our minds. This new ad for Chanel No. Five, it's the first time a man has been tapped to promote this iconic perfume brand. And let me play a short clip. Here it is.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHANEL NO. 5 ADVERTISEMENT)

BRAD PITT: The world turns, and we turn with it. But wherever I go, there you are. My look, my fate, my fortune: Chanel No. Five. Inevitable.

MARTIN: Inevitable. I can't tell from your expressions whether you think this is hilarious or just ridiculous. So, Bridget, I'm going to...

GOFF: You're inscrutable.

JOHNSON: I just - you know, you said TMZ. I thought we were going to segue into Paul Ryan's biceps.

MARTIN: No.

JOHNSON: So I was all ready for that.

MARTIN: No. But I'm sorry.

JOHNSON: You know, first of all, I didn't know that the "Legends of the Fall" look was back, but - you know, it's just kind of following the long tradition of women's fragrance ads having nothing to do with perfume. And I would say that the target audience would probably rather look at him, anyways, than a supermodel finding her superman after she put on the super perfume, or even, like, Justin Bieber hocking perfume. So...

MARTIN: So, Viviana, what about you? I can't tell from your face, either, whether you're just completely annoyed or what.

HURTADO: Aloca(ph) walks into the forest in her high heels. She falls off. Does anybody hear her? The point is that existential is not what I want to think about when I want to feel sexy and buy a perfume, nor does the "Legend of the Fall's" look. Maybe "Thelma and Louise."

MARTIN: OK. Keli?

GOFF: Look, I'm a big Brad Pitt fan, a big Chanel fan, but I believe the only thing that's inevitable about all of this is that this ad will soon be pulled and replaced with another with him shaved, looking like we all want to see Brad Pitt looking.

(LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: You know, one of our - I won't call names. One of our male colleagues said, look, I don't know anything about perfume. If Brad tells me to buy it, I might buy it. So I wonder, is this really - maybe it's for men. Maybe it's not for...

GOFF: To buy gifts for us?

MARTIN: Yeah.

GOFF: I don't know.

MARTIN: To buy gifts for us. Buy gifts for us.

HURTADO: It's right before the holiday season. Maybe.

MARTIN: It's right before the holiday season. OK. All right. Well we'll leave it...

JOHNSON: I'm guessing men prefer the Victoria's Secret commercials for ad inspection than...

HURTADO: And walking into the Victoria's Secrets.

MARTIN: This is a tough crowd. This is a tough crowd. Brad, I'm sorry. This is a tough crowd. Sorry.

GOFF: But he's great. He does great work for - you know, in New Orleans, you know.

JOHNSON: He does. Yes.

MARTIN: Keli Goff is a political correspondent for TheRoot.com. She joined us from our bureau in New York City. Here in Washington, D.C., Bridget Johnson, the Washington, D.C. editor for P.J. Media, the conservative libertarian commentary and news website, and Viviana Hurtado, blogger-in-chief at The Wise Latina Club. She's also a spokesperson for Project Vote. That's a nonpartisan organization that promotes voting in under-representative communities.

Thank you - underrepresented communities. Thank you all so much.

HURTADO: Thanks, Michel.

JOHNSON: Thanks.

GOFF: Thanks, Michel.

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