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The challenges of a town hall debate

On Sunday night in St. Louis, Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump meet for their second of three televised 90-minute debates. This time, the debate will follow a town meeting format, with voters joining the moderator in asking questions. As NewsHour Weekend Special Correspondent Jeff Greenfield reports, that format has tripped up many candidates before.

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  • JEFF GREENFIELD:

    And many recent Presidential debates have featured the candidates and the moderator sitting down at a table.

  • JEFF GREENFIELD:

    But tomorrow's debate features a very different format: a "town hall" meeting, in which undecided voters—selected by the Gallup organization—put questions directly to the candidates. It's a format that offers special opportunities—and pitfalls.

  • JEFF GREENFIELD:

    For instance—a question can sometimes be unclear—as in this example from 1992.

  • AUDIENCE MEMBER:

    How has the national debt personally affected each of your lives? And if it hasn't, how can you honestly find a cure for the economic problems of the common people if you have no experience in what's ailing them?

  • JEFF GREENFIELD:

    President George H.W. Bush was clearly confused by what she was asking.

  • GEORGE H.W. BUSH:

    Well, I think the national debt affects everybody.

  • AUDIENCE MEMBER:

    You, on a personal basis — how has it affected you?

  • CAROLE SIMPSON:

    Has it affected you personally?

  • GEORGE H.W. BUSH:

    I'm not sure I get — help me with the question and I'll try to answer it.

  • AUDIENCE MEMBER:

    Well, I've had friends that have been laid off from jobs.

  • BILL CLINTON:

    Tell me how it's affected you, again. You know people who've lost their jobs and lost their homes?

  • JEFF GREENFIELD:

    Bill Clinton, by contrast, quickly reached out for a personal connection.

  • BILL CLINTON:

    When a factory closes, I know the people who ran it. When the businesses go bankrupt, I know them.

  • JEFF GREENFIELD:

    The format, unhinged from lecterns and tables, allow the candidates much more movement. But this can be a double-edged sword. In 2000, Vice President Al Gore decided to move into Governor Bush's personal space, perhaps to create a sense of dominance. But watch:

  • JEFF GREENFIELD:

    That non-verbal gesture proved to be the most memorable moment of the entire debate.

  • MITT ROMNEY:

    How much did you cut licenses and permits on federal lands and federal waters?

  • BARACK OBAMA:

    Governor Romney, here's what we did.

  • JEFF GREENFIELD:

    In the 2012 town hall…Mitt Romney and President Obama were on their feet so much, it felt at times more like a duel than a debate.

  • MITT ROMNEY:

    "Mr. President, have you looked at your pension?"

  • BARACK OBAMA:

    I don't look at my pension; it's not as big as yours, so it doesn't take as long.

  • CANDY CROWLEY:

    If I could have you sit down, Governor Romney. Thank you.

  • JEFF GREENFIELD:

    It is moments like these that make the town hall meeting, the most unpredictable, and for the candidates, the riskiest format of all.

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