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Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Town Hall Format Poses Risks for Obama and Romney

As President Obama and Mitt Romney prepare for their debate on Tuesday night, they face an unpredictable variable that was not a factor in their previous encounter: the common voter.

Both presidential candidates have had some of their most awkward and politically fraught moments when confronted directly by voters. Tuesday's debate will force as many as a dozen such encounters, any one of which could become a crucial moment in the campaign's remaining weeks.

Mr. Obama was caught off guard during a 2010 economic town hall forum on CNBC when an African-American woman declared herself profoundly disappointed in him. He grinned awkwardly and then rambled for four minutes, providing new evidence of the political peril from a still sluggish economy.

At the Iowa State Fair in 2011, Mr. Romney's answer to a combative voter provided one of the most enduring - and damaging - moments in his campaign. “Corporations are people, too, my f riend,” a defensive Mr. Romney responded, a line that would dog him in the months ahead.

For 90 minutes tonight, both candidates must seek to avoid such moments - and their advisers know it. There is precious little time left before Election Day to correct a devastating interaction should one occur.

Both men live in protective bubbles, shuttled around in bulletproof cars and protected by aides. The pointed questions they usually get are from reporters, pundits or the occasional greeting from a supporter on a rope line.

Mr. Romney is seen as particularly awkward when interacting with voters, and polls suggest that he has the bigger challenge. In most surveys, a majority of people say they do not believe that he understands their plight. He does not get high marks for empathy.

In the same polls, Mr. Obama scores better when it comes to understanding voters. But the president has sometimes struggled to display empathy when he's talking to them. Instead , he has a tendency to answer emotion with explanation, often launching into a long, rambling discourse laden with facts and figures.

In Tuesday's debate, most of the questions will come from members of the audience, who were selected by Gallup as examples of uncommitted voters. That could translate into particularly pointed questions for the two candidates, particularly on the subject that has dominated the campaign: the economic struggles of the middle class.

What makes the questions particularly difficult - and what has bedeviled both men during the past year - is the proximity of the questioner.

Mr. Obama has repeatedly been asked by reporters, news anchors and others about the disappointment that his supporters feel in his inability to turn around the economy more quickly. In most of those cases, he is able to quickly dismiss the question or find a way to change the subject.

But that was impossible in the case of the woman who confronted Mr. Obam a at the CNBC forum. There she was, standing just feet from the president, declaring her frustrations for all to see.

“I'm exhausted of defending you, defending your administration,” the woman told the president. “I'm deeply disappointed where we are right now. I'm waiting, sir. I'm waiting. I don't feel it yet. … Is this my new reality?”

Mr. Obama offered her the same explanation that he often does on the campaign trail, trying to thread the needle between being compassionate and defending his own record. “My goal here is not to convince you that everything is where it needs to be,” he said. “But what I am saying is that we are moving in the right direction.”

The president had a similar exchange with a voter at a town hall meeting on health care in 2010. The woman asked about taxes included in his health care plan, asserting, “We are overtaxed as it is.”

Mr. Obama's answer took more than 17 minutes, as he rambled on about Medica re, the Congressional Budget Office, earmarks, payroll taxes, the deficit, Congressional pay-as-you-go rules and Cobra insurance coverage. All the while, the woman asking the question stood politely.

“Boy, that was a long answer,” Mr. Obama said when he finished. “I'm sorry.”

Mr. Romney has had just as much trouble during his interactions with real voters.

In a coffee shop in Tampa, Fla., Mr. Romney met with voters who complained about their difficulty finding work. “I should tell my story,” Mr. Romney said, trying to be funny. “I'm also unemployed.”

But instead of humor, what persisted was the unfortunate image of Mr. Romney - who is worth an estimated $250 million - sitting next to unemployed workers and joking about being out of work himself. It added to the ammunition for Democrats that he is out of touch with regular people.

In 2011, when a young boy handed Mr. Romney a $1 bill turned into origami, the Republican struggled t o find an unfolded $1 bill to hand back to the boy. The Washington Post reported that Mr. Romney “had a $100 bill” in his billfold and eventually found a $5 bill to give the boy.

And in Youngstown, Ohio, in March, Mr. Romney told a young college-bound student that he should “shop around” for the lowest price, suggesting that he shouldn't look to the government for help in paying for college. That gave Mr. Obama a chance to tout his own efforts to raise government student loans.

Both candidates have spent day preparing for the debate, though advisers know that there is a limit to how much they can be scripted to deal with an interaction with a voter.

Mr. Obama expects voters to question him on the slow economic recovery. Mr. Romney can rehearse how he might respond to questions about his wealth or his business practices while at Bain Capital.

But in the end, success or failure tonight is likely to come down to how comfortable each appears to be in handling those questions. The cameras will be watching, and so will tens of millions of voters.