A strong performance by Mitt Romney in a debate almost two weeks ago helped shift the polls toward him, showing the importance of these sessions in a close campaign like this one. Here’s what to watch for when the candidates meet at Hofstra University on Long Island in New York on Tuesday night.
1. Can they handle questions from voters?
It’s not politically damaging for Romney or President Obama to dismiss or ignore a question from a journalist or their opponent, as that’s a routine part of politics. But most of the questions at Tuesday’s town hall will be asked by 80 undecided voters from the area around the university.
That means the questions may lack the specificity of a journalist. President Obama, for example, may not be asked a three-part question about why his administration did not have more security at the Libyan embassy in Benghazi, where an American ambassador and three others were killed last month.
On the other hand, an undecided voter who doesn’t make enough money to pay income taxes could press Romney on his controversial comment that the 47 percent of Americans who don’t pay such taxes see themselves as “victims.” Similarly, an unemployed person who comes to the debate would have unique credibility to question President Obama on the sluggish growth and high jobless rate under his leadership.
And the candidates can’t cast those questions as too political or somehow out of bounds, as they often do in interviews with journalists. It’s also hard to imagine Romney or Obama talking over voters, as the candidates have done with debate moderators.
This format also challenges two candidates who are not for showing their feelings to project empathy and warmth.
2. Is Obama ready to talk about Libya?
In last week’s debate, Vice President Biden said “we” didn’t know which embassy officials in Libya requested more security. Administration officials were forced to clarify that the White House had not been informed of these concerns, but that the State Department had.
Even in a town hall format, the president could face tough questions on this issue. And he will want to give an answer that does not led to even more questions, as Biden’s response did.
3. How does Obama balance between comforting voters and confronting Romney?
Democrats blasted Obama as being too passive in his first debate, while praising the ultra-combative tact Biden took against Paul Ryan. The president now needs to balance criticizing Romney’s policy ideas, interacting with an in-person audience of undecided voters not likely to want to watch sharp attacks, and maintaining the sizable advantage he has in terms of which candidate is seen as more likable.
This is not easy; Biden’s laughs and smirks when Ryan spoke fitted the traditional role of a vice-presidential candidate as the lead attacker of the opposition. But the person at the top of the ticket usually tries to project optimism. And such a negative approach would be an ever odder fit for Obama, known for cloaking his rather liberal policies and views in a bi-partisan approach.
Obama will want to point out holes in Romney’s logic and arguments without the more controversial elements of Biden’s approach.
4. Will Romney be pinned down on his tax plan?
Less than a month from potentially being elected president, Romney still has not explained in detail his campaign promise to cut income tax rates by 20 percent while not increasing the budget deficit or hiking taxes on middle-class Americans. He has given vague descriptions of certain tax loopholes he would eliminate to raise tax revenue, but not laid out a specific plan.
Can they voters in Hofstra do what the Obama campaign and journalists have not and force Romney to give more details?
Follow Perry Bacon Jr. on Twitter at @perrybaconjr