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Shields and Gerson Trade Pre-Game Predictions for Town Hall Presidential Debate

October 16, 2012 at 12:00 AM EDT
Judy Woodruff reports on the candidates' campaign stops and preparations for the town hall debate at Hofstra University in Hempstead, N.Y. Then Gwen Ifill talks with syndicated columnist Mark Shields and Washington Post columnist Michael Gerson about their debate anticipations for both candidates.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The polls are close, the nation is watching, and time is growing short. It all makes for high stakes tonight in the second of this fall’s Obama-Romney debates.

QUESTION: How are you feeling about tonight?

BARACK OBAMA, U.S. President: I feel fabulous. Look at this beautiful day.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The president was in good spirits this morning as he left his debate camp in Williamsburg, Virginia. He headed for Hempstead, New York, and his second showdown with Republican Mitt Romney, who had been preparing in Boston.

Meanwhile, the campaigning continued without letup. Republican vice presidential nominee Paul Ryan arrived at a Lynchburg, Virginia, event with flags flying.

REP. PAUL RYAN (R-Wis.), Vice Presidential Candidate: This is not just an election about more take-home pay or more job creation. It’s not just about preventing a debt crisis from turning us into Europe. It is about what kind of country we’re going to be, what kind of people we’re going to be.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And the Obama campaign turned to former President Clinton in a new Web video charging the Romney tax plan favors the wealthy.

BILL CLINTON, Former U.S. President: I know how this works, because I’m one of those folks. If I get Governor Romney’s 20 percent income tax cut, you can take away my home mortgage deduction, my charitable deduction, my deduction for state and local taxes, and any other tax deduction I have, and I will still get a tax cut.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Meanwhile, debate arrangements were concluding at Hofstra University on Long Island, where 80 undecided voters, selected by Gallup, will fill these seats. Candy Crowley, CNN’s chief political correspondent, will moderate.

In that role, she’s selecting from questions submitted by the audience in advance. Individual voters will ask their question. Each candidate will get two minutes to respond. And just this afternoon, the Commission on Presidential Debates announced a format change: that the moderator will be allowed to pose a follow-up.

The candidates will be limited to one-minute responses to those questions.

GWEN IFILL: And here with us now to preview what to expect tonight are syndicated columnist Mark Shields and Washington Post columnist Michael Gerson.

Welcome, guys.

Who has the most to prove tonight, Mark?

MARK SHIELDS: President Obama.

We have been told time and again by all sorts of scholars that campaigns don’t matter, debates don’t matter. Yet, since the first debate less than two weeks ago, we have seen a four-point swing in President Obama’s — in President Obama’s disfavor in the favor of Mitt Romney.

And, so, this is the test. I mean, before the first debate, Gwen, Republicans were crawling out on the 23rd floor ledge ready to look into abyss. And they have more than crawled back in. They were energized and emboldened by Mitt Romney’s performance last week.

The positions reversed, mood swing. The Democrats…

GWEN IFILL: They gave up the ledge and handed it over to the Democrats.

MARK SHIELDS: Yes. And the Democrats were staring in the abyss.

And Miss Manners were offended and some other observers of the Marquis of Queensbury rules, but Joe Biden did in fact energize Democrats. But it’s all up to the president. Campaigns are — presidential campaigns are about the future. He has to define the future, how it’s going to be different from what it’s been through in the first and the difference with Mitt Romney.

GWEN IFILL: Michael.


No, I agree with Mark. One of the most disturbing things that came out of the first debate for President Obama was that Mitt Romney took the lead on who has a plan for the economy and who has a plan for the debt, which he had not led on those before. That puts pressure on Obama not just to be tough tonight, not just to be spirited, which he needs to be, but also to be forward-looking.

That is a difficult communication challenge. In the polls and focus groups that came out after the first debate, it was obvious that people don’t want continuity. They actually want change. President Obama has to be an incumbent who has an agenda for change, which is not an easy, you know, task that he has in this debate.

GWEN IFILL: And Governor Romney has to be what?

MICHAEL GERSON: Well, he has to keep doing what he’s been doing. It’s easier to keep momentum than to shift momentum.

He needs to continue to distance himself from the worst excesses of his party and have an answer when the president comes back at him on that, which I think will be an interesting part of the debate tonight. He needs to talk about his plan for the future, but he also needs to be able to empathize with people in the audience.

You know, Mitt Romney is a man of tremendous personal generosity by every account, but that doesn’t always translate into an ability to empathize with average voters.

GWEN IFILL: Well, you bring up an interesting point, which is we’re talking about a town hall format. Both of these gentlemen have done dozens of town halls with friendly audiences on the campaign trail.

But tonight they don’t know who is going to ask what and what to prepare for. So, how is this different?

MARK SHIELDS: It’s different in the sense that instead of saying, tell us, what is your plan, Governor Romney, that’s going to save America because I know you’re going to do it, or President Obama, tell us how wonderful you are, the questions that most of them get at town meetings, they’re going to be, what are you going to do about my life?

And I’m sure there will be somebody with a plaintiff cry almost for help, for solace. And I think this is one place where Governor Romney is sorely tested. He is not somebody who is at ease in this situation, displaying empathy in a public situation or identifying easily with strangers.

I think the president — I think this is the natural playing field for the president, in that sense of the town hall, which you will recall President Clinton, then Governor Clinton, so effectively demonstrated in 1992 and got as a consequence a six-point lift in the polls after that second debate in 1992 at the town meeting.

GWEN IFILL: Does this change the expectation scheme to style over substance, because you want to see the way these candidates relate, rather than what they say in answer to the questions?

MICHAEL GERSON: Well, there is inherently — in a town hall format, there’s more style. I mean, you have to determine when you walk, you know, when you walk towards people who question you, when you walk around the stage, without looking like you’re wandering.

GWEN IFILL: When you check your watch.


MICHAEL GERSON: Yes. I mean, it’s the only format where, you know, looking at your watch became a national scandal. It’s not a normal kind of circumstance, the hyper focus a these things.

And I think the biggest difference in a town hall format though is exactly that one. You can’t ignore the questioner.


MICHAEL GERSON: When a journalist asks you a question, you can ignore them and people actually like it.


MICHAEL GERSON: Right, exactly.

But these questioners are the stand-ins for every man and every woman. And how you treat them becomes a symbol of how you treat voters.

MARK SHIELDS: That’s right.

GWEN IFILL: Especially if you have key groups which you’re trying to appeal to. Both or trying to appeal to women voters, for instance.

MARK SHIELDS: That’s right.

GWEN IFILL: How do you do — do you just turn the question into a question that speaks to those audiences?

MARK SHIELDS: You can’t.

This is a question really of judgment and of — really of feel for the candidate, because if you’re the questioner and you ask me, Mark, what are we going to do about the metric system?  We should adopt it for economic efficiency. I can’t then say we would adopt the metric system if this son of a gun hasn’t paid — libel 47 percent of Americans as moochers and layabouts.

GWEN IFILL: Hard to change the topic.

MARK SHIELDS: You have got to answer the questioner and do it in a way that contrasts difference with you and your opponent, but not in a way that appears just using the questioner as a vehicle and really ignoring what their real concern is.


I do think — I think Romney’s challenge is that empathy challenge. I think the president also has a little bit of a challenge from his history in these formats, where he has two minutes tonight.

MARK SHIELDS: That’s right.

MICHAEL GERSON: It’s hard for him to clear his voice in two minutes. He once had a question at a town hall format that he answered for 17 minutes.

So he’s going to have to find ways to empathize, to answer questions, and pivot effectively. And I think that’s a challenge for him tonight.

GWEN IFILL: I remember — was it a town hall meeting — where the president was — where a seemingly friendly looking audience member said to the president, I’m exhausted defending you.

MARK SHIELDS: That’s right. That was here in Washington. A woman said, I’m just tired, Mr. President. I mean, she was a supporter who had just grown tired, and her own travails had really done it.

GWEN IFILL: What are the biggest mistakes or accomplishments for each of these guys tonight?

MARK SHIELDS: I mean, the president has to play both offense and defense.

I mean, he didn’t play either in the first one. He’s got to be able to defend himself, parry, any time that Governor Romney raises in his answer a criticism of the administration. But I think the biggest challenge for the president is to lay out the differences between himself and Governor Romney and also that sense of whoever captures the future — neither one of these candidates has captured the future in 2012. Whoever does, I think, has a real leg up to winning the White House.

GWEN IFILL: Michael.

MICHAEL GERSON: I agree with that.

I’m going to be looking for three specific things tonight as well. I am going to be looking at how does Mitt Romney deal with the auto bailout issue, because both of these men are running for president of Ohio right now. And that is going to be a big issue. He knows it’s coming. His answer is going to be very, very interesting.

How does he deal with social issues? Because Romney is not very comfortable on that set of issues traditionally. And I think it will be interesting to see if Benghazi comes up, because how Obama deals with that is complex. The answer is — you know, he’s going to have a difficult time providing an adequate answer there without getting into more trouble. So there are some specific things that come out of this debate that really make some news.

GWEN IFILL: OK. I’m writing those three things down, Michael. And I will be watching for each of them later on tonight.

MARK SHIELDS: Governor Romney may not be comfortable on social issues, but he has been flexible.


GWEN IFILL: Oh, boy, you had to get that in. That’s what you’re watching for tonight.

OK. Mark Shields, Michael Gerson, thank you both very much.