Candidates Face Challenges In Town Hall Style Debate

Oct 7, 2016
Originally published on October 17, 2016 7:19 pm
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In a town hall debate, real people - voters - will ask half the questions. NPR's national political correspondent Mara Liasson reports on what that could mean for Hillary Clinton.

MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: Democratic strategist Stephanie Cutter says, on Sunday, Hillary Clinton has to do what she's been trying to do more of on the campaign trail.

STEPHANIE CUTTER: She needs to be herself. And I think that what we're seeing now is her attempt to open up the door and let people in. And I think as she stands on the debate stage, that needs to be a priority.

LIASSON: Be yourself is famous advice, and it's always easier said than done, especially for a guarded, cautious politician like Hillary Clinton. She's been asked about this before at town hall meetings. This woman wanted to know why the Hillary Clinton she sees on TV seems so drilled and rehearsed.

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UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: What do you have to say to the commentators that might call you, quote, unquote, "boring or lack spontaneity?"

HILLARY CLINTON: You know, I've heard that, and I...

LIASSON: That was during the primaries. In response, Clinton told a story about a blog post a friend sent her.

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CLINTON: She was talking about a young friend of hers who said, you know, he - he really - one of the reason he really likes Senator Sanders is because his hair was a mass and he yelled a lot, and he thought that was just great. And I'm thinking to myself, as my friend said, boy, that would really work for any woman we know.

LIASSON: Both campaigns say the town hall format plays to their candidate's strengths. Donald Trump has spent more time on TV than any other presidential candidate except Ronald Reagan. Democrats say the more intimate town hall setting is a better fit for Clinton. Strategist Paul Begala says it's more like the small meetings and roundtables she prefers over set-piece speeches at big rallies.

PAUL BEGALA: When she sits around with small-business people and talks about what they need, when she sits around with working moms, talks about child care, that's when she's at her best. Hard to take that to scale in a presidential campaign, but this is one rare opportunity when she can.

LIASSON: Of course, most of the questioners at candidates' own town halls serve up pretty soft stuff. Here's a question Clinton got in Pennsylvania from a 15-year-old girl earlier this month.

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UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: I see with my own eyes the damage Donald Trump does when he talks about women and how they look. As the first female president, how would you undo some of that damage and help girls understand that they are so much more than just what they look like?

CLINTON: Oh, thank you.

LIASSON: But, on Sunday night, the crowd may not be uniformly congenial. And, says Democratic pollster Geoff Garin, there are other pitfalls in a town hall debate.

GEOFF GARIN: The town hall format makes attacking your opponent much more challenging because you're basically responding to a question from an individual who's not asking to hear you attack somebody else, but to tell him or her how you're going to make things better in the country.

LIASSON: Paul Begala says a town hall debate also makes it harder to deflect a question or pivot away to a safer talking point, a favorite debate tactic for presidential candidates.

BEGALA: Any question coming from a voter has a tremendous presumption of validity, so you can't simply say, well, that's none of your business. My strong supposition is that voters want to know about their own lives, and that's what they'll ask about.

LIASSON: But they might not. In the Commander-in-Chief Forum in September on NBC, Clinton got this pointed question from a former naval flight officer who said he had held a top secret/sensitive compartmented information clearance.

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UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Secretary Clinton, how can you expect those, such as myself, who were and are entrusted with America's most sensitive information to have any confidence in your leadership as president when you clearly corrupted our national security?

CLINTON: Well, I appreciate your concern and also your experience, but let me try to make the distinctions that I think are important for me to answer your question.

LIASSON: Clinton, as she always does, is preparing diligently for Sunday's debate, presumably planning to give a stronger answer to questions about her emails or the Clinton Foundation or the argument that worked best for Donald Trump in the first debate - that he represents change and she is the status quo. Mara Liasson, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.