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Blunder: Gaffes aren’t just for candidates. Once in a while, moderators make missteps, too. “Debates are a dance between candidates who don’t want to have any unguarded moments, and the moderator who is trying to pull something authentic out of them,” Mr. Carroll said. “They want to elicit things, but not be too intrusive or sort of dominate. That’s a fine line.”

Fool’s gold standard: Mr. Shaw’s question to Mr. Dukakis elicited gasps in the debate press room. On the other hand, the CNN anchor was known for tough questions. “The damage to Dukakis far outweighed the negative reaction to Shaw,” Mr. Carroll said. More recently, Newt Gingrich used moderator John King’s question about his extramarital dalliances during a Republican primary debate to righteously lambaste both the CNN anchor and the media in general — two winning targets, at least for a partisan audience. “Moderators have to be careful to not seem like they are playing a sort of ‘gotcha’ game,” Mr. Carroll said. “Gingrich was very adept at making moderators seem like they were creating unfair environments, even if they weren’t.”

Antidote: Be boring and ask safe questions. Only who wants that?

Quotable: “In some sense, debate moderators ought to be like football referees,” Mr. Lanoue said. “They shouldn’t try to be the story by embarrassing candidates or trying to corner them. They’ve had a good debate if you don’t know that they were there.”