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Stephanopoulos defends his questions to Obama

April 17, 2008 | 10:43 am

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Amid a storm of criticism that Wednesday’s Democratic presidential debate focused too heavily on “gotcha” questions and not enough on substance, ABC News’ George Stephanopoulos defended his decision to ask Illinois Sen. Barack Obama about his relationship with former political radical William Ayers. Stephanopoulos denied he’d been spoon-fed the question by Fox News host Sean Hannity.

“We have been researching this for a while,” Stephanopoulos said in a phone interview from New York. ABC News political correspondent Jake Tapper, he said, had blogged about the issue April 10, after it was first reported by Politico, the political news website. “Part of what we discovered is that Sen. Obama had never been asked directly about it, even though it’s being written about and talked about and Republicans are signaling that this is gonna be an issue in the general election.”

(A spokesman for Obama did not immediately respond to a request for a comment.)

On Tuesday, as a guest on Hannity’s radio program, Stephanopoulos said, “Well, I’m taking notes now, Sean” when Hannity suggested he raise the topic of Ayers with Obama.

In Wednesday’s prime-time debate, co-moderated with Charles Gibson, Stephanopoulos asked Obama: “…On this issue, general theme of patriotism, in your relationships. A gentleman named William Ayers. He was part of the Weather Underground in the 1970s. They bombed the Pentagon, the Capitol, and other buildings. He's never apologized for that…. An early organizing meeting for your state Senate campaign was held at his house, and your campaign has said you are ‘friendly.’ Can you explain that relationship for the voters and explain to Democrats why it won't be a problem?”

Obama replied, “This is a guy who lives in my neighborhood, who's a professor of English in Chicago who I know and who I have not received some official endorsement from. He's not somebody who I exchange ideas from on a regular basis. And the notion that somehow as a consequence of me knowing somebody who engaged in detestable acts 40 years ago, when I was 8 years old, somehow reflects on me and my values doesn't make much sense, George.”

Progressives pounced. “The real story of this debate,” said MSNBC’s Keith Olbermann, may be “where one of the moderators found his questions.”

Stephanopoulos dismissed the idea that he was doing Hannity’s bidding.

“The questions we asked were tough and fair and appropriate and relevant and what you would expect to be asked in a presidential debate at this point,” he said. “The questions we asked…are being debated around the political world every day.”

By this morning, more than 14,000 viewer comments had been posted on the ABC News website, the overwhelming majority critical of the debate moderators, who spent most of the first hour on what Stephanopoulous called “electability questions.”

“The way we thought about it was, it made sense to hit the electability questions first, then move on,” he said. “I can see where reasonable people would differ with that.”

The debate, broadcast in prime time, was the 21st and probably final matchup between the two Democratic contenders, Obama and New York Sen. Hillary Clinton. It was, according to ABC News spokesman Jeffrey Schneider, the most watched debate of this campaign cycle, with 10.7 million viewers. The previous record, also held by ABC News, was 9.3 million viewers of the Jan. 5 debate between Democrats in New Hampshire.

As the critical Pennsylvania primary looms on Tuesday, both candidates have been dogged by controversies unrelated to the issues that voters say are topmost on their minds.

Clinton apologized for making up a story that she was under sniper fire on a tarmac while visiting Bosnia in 1996. Obama said he had “mangled up” what he meant to say after implying to supporters at a San Francisco fundraiser that some blue-collar voters are “bitter” and as a result “cling” to religion and guns.

Updated with more after the jump...    

Stephanopoulos asked Obama about his former pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, whose impassioned denunciations of the American government were widely disseminated on the Web last month.

“But do you believe he’s as patriotic as you are?” Stephanopoulos asked.

Obama replied, “This is somebody who's a former Marine. So, I believe that he loves this country. But I also believe that he’s somebody who, because of the experiences he’s had over the course of a lifetime, is also angry about the injustices he’s had.”

Stephanopoulos, who was a senior advisor to Bill Clinton in his first term, also pressed Clinton about her character, telling her that an ABC News poll found that “six in 10 voters that we talk to say they don’t believe you’re honest and trustworthy.”

Washington Post television critic Tom Shales accused Stephanopoulos and Gibson of turning in “shoddy, despicable performances.” They dwelled, he added, “entirely on specious and gossipy trivia that has already been hashed and rehashed, in the hope of getting the candidates to claw at one another over disputes that are no longer news.”

However, New York Times political columnist David Brooks blogged his approval. “I understand the complaints,” he wrote, “but I thought the questions were excellent. The journalist’s job is to make politicians uncomfortable, to explore evasions, contradictions and vulnerabilities. Almost every question tonight did that.”

An outtake from the end of the debate, which appeared instantly on the Huffington Post, showed Gibson being heckled by audience members as he introduced a final commercial break. “The crowd is turning on me,” he said with a thin smile.

Some who watched thought the anger stemmed from the caliber of the debate. But Schneider, the ABC News spokesman, was in the hall and said he believed some in the audience were angry that they had to sit through yet more commercials before being allowed to leave the venue.

“I have no doubt other people may wish to spin that,” he said. 

-- Robin Abcarian

Photo: ABC News moderators George Stephanopoulos, right, and Charles Gibson, left, are seen before the start of the Democratic Party debate at the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia on Wednesday. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

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