By Samuel P. Jacobs
HEMPSTEAD, New York (Reuters) - As in pro football this season, many of the noisiest complaints after political debates have been directed not at the participants, but at the referees.
Tuesday's debate between Democratic President Barack Obama and Republican Mitt Romney was no exception, as moderator Candy Crowley of CNN came under fire for siding with Obama during one of his sharpest exchanges with Romney.
In that moment, Crowley walked into the middle of a national security controversy and contravened the wishes of both presidential campaigns that she remain largely a spectator in the second presidential debate.
After Romney said that it took Obama 14 days to call the attack that killed four Americans at the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya, an act of "terror," Obama cited remarks he made in the White House Rose Garden on September 12, the day after the attack. The president said he had mentioned terrorism in recounting the attack.
"Get the transcript," Obama told Romney.
"He did call it an act of terror," Crowley said, siding with Obama's interpretation.
On CNN after the debate, Crowley said her comment "was the natural thing that came out of me."
Romney supporters at the debate were irate.
"Candy was wrong, and Candy had no business doing that, and Candy didn't even keep the (candidates' speaking) time right," said former New Hampshire governor John Sununu, one of Romney's most boisterous supporters.
Other Republicans chimed in with criticism of Crowley.
"At different times tonight, she in fact got into the game, and she wasn't on the sidelines," said Ron Kaufman, a senior adviser to Romney.
'CANDY WAS DANDY'
The jibes about Crowley's comment on Libya came after both campaigns expressed anxiety over how active a role she would take in the debate, which featured undecided voters asking the candidates questions in a "town hall" format.
The idea was to allow Obama and Romney to directly address voters' concerns and engage one another in the second of three debates the pair will have before the November 6 election.
Both sides said they feared that Crowley would take too firm a hand, overshadowing the audience members picked to ask questions.
A copy of the campaigns' agreement over the debate's terms was leaked to Time magazine on Monday.
The memorandum, to which Crowley did not personally consent, stated that the moderator would not ask follow-up questions. The agreement did allow Crowley to select which questions, written by the undecided voters attending the debate, would be asked.
Harsh criticism of the debate moderator followed the first presidential debate, too.
After that debate, in Denver on October 3, Obama's supporters complained that moderator Jim Lehrer of PBS had been too passive and was overrun by an aggressive Romney.
At one point during Tuesday's debate, Crowley appeared to admit that she did not want to get the same treatment as Lehrer, saying that might "get run of town" if she didn't force the two candidates to move onto another question.
She may have had more than Lehrer's reviews in mind.
Last month, Carole Simpson, the first woman to moderate a presidential debate in 1992, wrote in an op-ed column that her role at a town hall forum 20 years ago was whittled down to being "the lady with the microphone," prevented from asking questions of her own.
Not all Romney hands saw value in Republicans leveling attacks on the moderator.
"I don't complain about the refs," said campaign senior adviser Eric Fehrnstrom. "I think Candy was dandy."
(Additional reporting by Steve Holland; Editing by David Lindsey and Eric Walsh)