The veteran PBS anchor drew caustic social media reviews for his performance on Wednesday, with critics saying he failed to keep control of the campaign's first direct exchange between President Barack Obama and Republican Mitt Romney. The candidates talked over Lehrer's attempts to keep them to time limitations, and his open-ended questions frequently lacked sharpness.
The tough assessments crossed party lines: Republican commentator Laura Ingraham wrote on Twitter that Lehrer seemed "a bit overwhelmed." Comic and Democratic activist Bill Maher bluntly tweeted that "Lehrer sucked."
It's not the night Lehrer would have expected. The 78-year-old moderated 11 presidential debates between 1988 and 2008, and after writing a book last year about his experiences, Lehrer said he was through. But he was persuaded to come back Wednesday to handle the long-awaited contest between Romney and Obama.
Romney, aggressive from the outset, beat back some of Lehrer's attempts to bring structure to the debate. At one point, when Lehrer tried to ask Romney a question, the Republican cut him off by saying of the president, "Everything he said about my tax plan was inaccurate." Then he continued to outline his argument.
Lehrer tried to end the first segment of the debate, hoping to move on to another topic, but Romney stopped him.
"I get the last word of this segment," Romney cut in.
Later, when Lehrer tried to cut off an Obama answer by saying the president's two minutes were up, Obama said he "had five seconds before you interrupted me." The president proceeded to speak for 30 more seconds.
Some of Lehrer's questions were open-ended, encouraging candidates to wander off and make their own points. He asked the candidates to explain the difference between them on ways to cut the federal deficit. He also asked Romney, "Would you have a question you'd like to ask the president about what he just said?"
Some of the commentary on Twitter compared Lehrer to a substitute teacher who had lost control of a classroom. "I'm waiting for one of them to throw a spitball at the teacher ... I mean Jim Lehrer," tweeted Sherri Shepherd of ABC's "The View."
"Regardless of who is winning this debate, Jim Lehrer is losing," tweeted Dan Abrams of ABC News, adding that Obama was "not honest" when he said that Lehrer had done a good job.
Veteran political writer Michael Tomasky of The Daily Best wrote: "Definitely Lehrer's last debate."
Conservative talk show host Dana Loesch tweeted at one point that "Romney just ran right over Lehrer."
Democrats weren't pleased about with Lehrer either. Stephanie Cutter, Obama's deputy campaign manager, told CNN that "I wondered if we needed a moderator since we had Mitt Romney." On MSNBC, commentator Rachel Maddow said that Romney "spent much of the night battling not just President Obama, but also the moderator of the debate, Jim Lehrer. And Mr. Romney won every exchange."
The Huffington Post also tweeted: "Mitt Romney and Barack Obama moderated this debate. Where was Jim Lehrer?"
To add insult to injury, Romney during the debate promised to cut off federal subsidies to PBS, even though he said, "I love PBS, I love Big Bird. I like you, too, Jim."