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Government, Politics & Issues

Debate's town-hall format a challenge for both Obama, Romney

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Oct. 16, 2012 - WASHINGTON – For President Barack Obama, the second presidential debate Tuesday night offers an opportunity to shift the campaign’s momentum – by energetically handling questions, deftly challenging his opponent and showing empathy to questioners.

For GOP challenger Mitt Romney, the challenge in the town-hall debate format will be to appear warm and fuzzy, to fend off Obama’s inevitable attacks without appearing to be rude, and to give viewers the impression that he is both caring and presidential.

And for moderator Candy Crowley – the Creve Coeur native who is CNN’s chief political correspondent – the goal is to be fair, facilitate the questions asked by town-hall attendees, and direct the discussion in a way that avoids canned responses but doesn’t violate the debate rules negotiated by the two campaigns.

Which of the two candidates will prevail? To find out, tune in tonight to this year’s second presidential debate, a 90-minute town-hall format at Hofstra University in the Long Island suburb of Hempstead, N.Y., starting at 8 p.m. Central Time.

The format follows in a tradition of town-hall style presidential debates that began in 1992, with then-challenger Bill Clinton dominating with his down-home, empathetic style. The undecided voters attending this week’s town hall will be screened in advance to make sure that they are not zealots for either side and have thoughtful questions to ask.

"There will be questioners to the right and left of me and in front of the candidates. And they will have the questions,” Crowley said Monday on CNN. Explaining her role, Crowley added: “As was the case in the Charlie Gibson town hall meeting and the Tom Brokaw town hall meeting in presidential campaigns past, there was a time after that for follow-up and for furthering the discussion.”

The minefield for Crowley – already discussed by the two campaigns after comments she made about her role this weekend – is to handle the candidates’ rebuttals and to decide when to ask follow-up questions.

And the main challenge for Obama and Romney, debate experts say, is to try to make their points in the town hall forum without appearing to be rude, angry or dismissive. That may limit direct attacks by Obama, who aides say wants to make a more energetic impression than he did in the first debate, when he turned in a lackluster performance.

“If this is going to be Obama’s opportunity to emerge as the spirited, aggressive, energetic candidate – 'taking it' to Romney – the fact that it’s going to be in front of these citizens might limit that somewhat,” said Mitchell S. McKinney, an associate professor of communications at the University of Missouri at Columbia.

McKinney, an expert on presidential debates, said in an interview that the town-hall format tends to be “the least attack-oriented” of presidential debate forums. “In town hall debates, candidates focus less on their opponents and much more on the issues that are raised by the citizen-questioners in the town hall. There are fewer candidate-to-candidate attacks” in town hall debates.

Studies of previous town hall debates showed that they tend to focus mainly on domestic issues, with attendees asking policy-oriented “problem/solution” questions. “There seems to be a pattern of these citizens asking: ‘How will you handle X? If elected, what will you do about this problem?’” he said, whether the issue is crime, jobs or education.

Former New Hampshire Gov. John Sununu, a Romney adviser, seemed to agree with that assessment when he told a television interviewer Monday: “It’s much harder for either candidate to break out in such a format.”

But Obama campaign spokeswoman Jen Psaki told journalists Monday that Obama will be energetic and won’t shy away from “correcting” any misstatements by Romney.

“You should expect that he’s going to be firm but respectful in correcting the record and the times we expect Mitt Romney will hide from and distort his own policies. He’s energized and I expect he will also be making a passionate case,” said Psaki.

“The audience is the people in the room but also the people at home and certainly he takes that into account in how he’s preparing and looking ahead to tomorrow.”

Henry I. Schvey, a drama professor at Washington University in St. Louis, thinks the town-hall format “plays to Obama’s strengths, as someone who is good at talking to people one-on-one and listening to them.”

Schvey says the body language, facial expressions and other non-verbal presentations of the candidates can be as important as what they say. Unlike the first debate – in which “people felt Obama was disengaged” because he was caught on split-screen TV shots looking down while Romney spoke – Schvey said he expects the president to use tactics that aim to show viewers that he is energized and empathetic.

“Sometimes you can ‘sucker’ your opponent, as when [Muhammad] Ali famously laid against the ropes and let [George] Foreman exhaust himself, then counter-punched at the right moment,” said Schvey, referring to Ali’s “rope-a-dope“ boxing tactics.

“Romney has to fight a certain way to make himself look presidential. By showing some passivity there in the first debate, he could create a sense of overreach by his opponent. And then, when the time comes, snap back.”

But will Obama be able to effectively “counter punch” in a town-hall debate format without turning off viewers? Schvey thinks so, “because the president is more engaged with people in a way that I don’t believe that Gov. Romney is.”

In town hall debates, aggressor can be the loser

When it comes to town hall style debates, the lesson of history seems to be: Attack at your own risk. Instead, McKinney said, viewers “watch to see how well they can empathize, relate to, and understand the concerns of these ordinary citizens.”

Having studied such debates for years, McKinney said he found that “when candidates go on the attack, the aggressive candidate in a town hall debate often comes across as seeming mean, petty, or desperate.”

Examples include GOP contender Bob Dole appearing to be “mean and upset” in his town hall with Clinton in 1996. Vice President Al Gore “was rather aggressive” in his town hall debate with George W. Bush in 2000. “Gore at one point even walked into Bush’s ‘personal space’ to make his point while Bush was speaking.” That backfired.

Four years ago, GOP nominee Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., “was trailing and wanted to ‘take it to’ Obama,” McKinney said. “But Obama in that town hall debate came across as the friend of the people, the empathizer – not going on the attack. And McCain – anytime that he seemed to ‘take it to’ Obama directly, it appeared surly or mean spirited.”

(START UPDATE:) Peter Kastor, a Washington University professor of history and American culture studies, says Bill Clinton’s success at projecting empathy with audience members in the 1992 town hall debate magnified the perception that President George H.W. Bush had trouble connecting with average Americans.

In a town-hall format, Kastor -- agreeing with several other experts -- says candidates need to pursue ways to respond to each other without deploying the sort of attacks that are common in one-on-one debates.

“The town hall format works very differently,” Kastor said in a statement Tuesday. “Candidates must be emotionally demonstrative and personally revealing in a way they don’t display in one-on-one debates.” (End Update.)

Crowley, who will choose the questions submitted by town hall citizens to make sure they are not repetitive or unfair, will play a key role in handling the candidates’ opportunities to rebut statements – or to ask follow-up questions.

Four years ago, former NBC News anchor Tom Brokaw – who moderated the Obama-McCain town hall debate – was criticized for asking too many of his own questions and also for redirecting topics based on attendees’ questions. “Candy Crowley ought to get combat gear after what I went through four years ago,” Brokaw said Sunday on NBC.

Crowley, 63, will be the first woman to moderate a presidential debate in two decades. (Last week’s vice presidential debate was moderated by ABC-TV correspondent Martha Raddatz.) Crowley spent most of her youth in Creve Coeur – she once told an interviewer that her teenage traditions were Sunday brunch at Schneithorst’s and malts at Steak ’n Shake – and studied for awhile at Principia College in Illinois before moving to the East Coast.

Last week, Crowley told an interviewer that moderators “need to take control” at times to help direct a debate, even in a town hall forum. The Romney and Obama campaigns then suggested that her view of moderating duties seemed to go beyond what the campaigns had agreed to in a memorandum, to which Crowley was not a party.

Tune in tonight to find out how well she does – and how successfully Obama defends his record while focusing his attention on individual questioners and also “correcting” any misleading Romney statements – without appearing to be aggressive or defensive.

Also in question is how well Romney is able to project empathy while at the same time turning back what promise to be spirited “corrections” by the president.

Romney’s sparring partner in debate practice, Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, told ABC News that Obama “is going to come out swinging. I think he's going to have to compensate for a poor first debate.” But Romney adviser Ed Gillespie isn't worried, telling Fox News that Obama “can change his tactics. He can't change his record.”

The president’s advisers said they are confident he can thrive in a town hall format. Political adviser David Axelrod tweeted Monday: "Enough already about moderators. [Obama] is ready for a vigorous debate and Q's from all comers!"

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