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Schieffer's Take On The Debates

The Early Show co-anchor Harry Smith spoke with CBS News Chief Washington Correspondent and Face the Nation anchor Bob Schieffer about the important role of moderator in presidentail debates. Schieffer was to be in that slot for the final set-to between George W. Bush and John Kerry.

Smith: President Bush and Senator John Kerry will face off tonight in their third and final debate. Moderating the event in Arizona will be CBS News Chief Washington Correspondent and host of Face the Nation, Bob Schieffer. I spoke to Bob about how he has been getting ready for the big showdown.

Schieffer: I woke up in the middle of the night in a cold sweat. I'd been asking the candidates questions, looked at my watch, it was 45 minutes into the debate, 45 minutes more to go, and I had no questions. And I turned to them and said, "Well, gentlemen, I don't have anything else to ask. Is there anything you'd like to say?" That's when I woke up. I don't know what they answered.

Smith: Bob, we'll take a light touch to this, but the fact is, especially with the polls that have come out through this past weekend, there's a point or two difference here or there, some are absolutely deadlocked, flat even. Without overblowing this (chuckle), the future of the republic depends on this debate. What kind of pressure are you feeling?

Schieffer: (laughing heartily, along with Simth) Well, let's put this in some perspective. I may be the umpire at the World Series, but the pressure is on the two men who are in the debate here. My job is to keep the focus on the issues. They're the ones who are and should be feeling the pressure.

But I want to tell you something. There is so much excitement about this, Harry, and I'm so happy about that. Because you know what has happened? We have finally taken this campaign off the TV commercials and put it onto a stage where you can judge these two men where there can be an intelligent discussion.

And you know something else? People like it. I mean, when I got to the airport out here in Arizona, I must have had 25 people just stop me in the airport -- "Hey, Bob, be sure and be tough on them." "Hey, Bob, here's a question."

I mean, everybody knows about this. It's appointment television. People are gathering around their TV sets like they do for Super Bowl parties, and I'm telling you, I think that is great. Anything we can do to put some excitement back into our political process to change the sourness that comes about because of these awful commercials that have been most of the campaign so far, I think that is all to the good, Harry.

Smith: In your storied career, Bob, do you ever remember being in the middle of anything quite as significant as this before?

Schieffer: No. No. And I must say, it's a little scary when you stop and think about it. But it's fine. I want to be here. I'm a reporter. How does it get better than this? I mean, I got into journalism because I like to ask newsmakers questions just to satisfy my own curiosity. So I'm going to get to do that, and I'm very excited about that, and I take it very seriously, and I'm going to do the very best job I can.

Smith: And just for the record, these are questions of your own invention, although, as you say, you have talked to other people and have taken the advice of all kinds of folks, but these are your questions?

Schieffer: Yes, and the debate commission asked me not to even tell them what the questions were. They said, "The only instruction we give you is we want this to be about domestic policy. You find the areas. You come up with the questions." Even my wife, I'm not going to tell her what the final questions are that I've come up with, because she'll be disappointed, I'm sure.

Smith: Bob Schieffer.

You can see the final presidential debate tonight at 9:00 eastern time, right here on CBS.

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