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Town Hall Format Could Make Things Tough On Obama

It was Bill Clinton who made the town hall-style debate famous, and looking back to his performance in the first such fall faceoff in 1992, it's easy to see why.

Clinton commanded the stage and used the format — in which voters, not journalists, ask the questions — to "feel the pain" of the audience. Now, President Obama and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney get a shot at the same format.

However, it's the president who comes at it from a distinct disadvantage, says Chris Arterton, a professor of political management at George Washington University.

Democratic partisans are going to want to see more passion — perhaps not like last week's vice presidential debate, but more than Obama displayed in the first presidential debate. The problem: The town hall may be a poor format for evening the score.

"Unfortunately, Obama, given his performance in the first debate, has to do two things simultaneously — take on Romney in a more confrontational way and at the same time, be responsive to the person asking the question," Arterton says. "That's not easy."

Alan Schroeder, a journalism professor at Northeastern University, agrees that it's going to be a balancing act for the president.

The town hall format "is more conversational. There's more of a dialogue with people asking the questions," says Schroeder, the author of Presidential Debates: 40 Years of High-Risk TV.

Candidates at debates are famous for dodging questions and breaking off into rehearsed political soliloquies. It's one thing to brush aside a journalist-moderator's question, but quite another to ignore a working mother of two from Red Hook.

"In a town hall, I think one of the measurements is whether the candidate is responsive to the question," Schroeder says.

"There are also some physical things. Being able to maneuver the space, understanding that it's a different-looking debate than the ones where you either sit at a table or stand at lecterns," he says.

Cue Bill Clinton. "He got off his chair; he engaged more than President Bush did. He walked around more freely, was more responsive, more natural," GWU's Arterton says.

That's what Romney and Obama need to do, he says. The two need to "directly engage the citizen who's asking the question and be responsive to that in a way that showcases that they do have a personal connection and understand what's going on at the base of American politics, at the grass roots," he says.

But don't expect Tuesday night's debate to be as freewheeling as it was in 1992. Since the days of Bush-Clinton, the campaigns have placed more restrictions on the format. First and foremost: no more random questions.

"Now, you have to get there early, write up your question on a piece of paper, the moderator chooses the question, the questioner is not allowed to depart from what they have written, they are not allowed to follow up," Schroeder says.

The result? Four years ago, the town hall debate between Obama and GOP nominee Sen. John McCain was "one of the dullest presidential debates in history," he says.

"The campaigns don't like spontaneity," Schroeder says. They want to be able to predict the questions, and if they are vetted by the moderate first, there have a better chance of doing so.

The tussle over control of the format is ongoing. CNN anchor Candy Crowley, who will moderate the debate, has raised hackles on both sides for suggesting that she may take a more active role in the questioning.

As strange as it sounds after his lackluster performance in Denver, one last hurdle for President Obama might be changing his tactics while still giving off an aura of consistency.

In 2000, Vice President Al Gore changed his style from debate to debate, says Arterton.

"First he was Attila the Hun, then Mr. Nice Guy and in the last debate, he was the geeky policy wonk," he says. "People just couldn't get a fix on who he was."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit

Scott Neuman is a reporter and editor, working mainly on breaking news for NPR's digital and radio platforms.
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