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Some who watch debates prefer sharper, more challenging questions. But there are dangers to that approach, too, as illustrated last winter when Newt Gingrich attacked CNN’s John King for bringing up his ex-wife’s accusation that he had asked for an open marriage.

While acknowledging that moderating is a difficult job, New York University journalism professor Jay Rosen said Lehrer lost control of the time and the topics during the debate.

“He didn’t really ask questions,” Rosen said. “I don’t know where he got the idea that saying `talk about the differences between you’ is a question. It’s not a question. It’s just an invitation to talk.”

Candidates often are coached to ignore the questions being asked, anyway, just to get across points that they want to emphasize, Sesno said.

After a rough night Wednesday, Lehrer didn’t even have to wait until “Saturday Night Live” to catch a parody of his performance. NBC’s Jimmy Fallon aired a skit in which Obama and Romney could agree on one thing: They wanted Lehrer to shut up.