Town hall test time

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Americans who wish the presidential candidates would answer them directly instead of just debating each other will get their way tonight, sort of. The second debate between President Obama and Mitt Romney, 9-10:30 p.m., at Hofstra University in Hempstead, N.Y., adopts a “town-hall” format in which citizens pose the questions and each candidate gets two minutes to respond.

The face-to-face encounter between candidates and public will give the president a chance to redeem himself after what almost everyone agrees was a disastrous performance in their initial meeting. Romney, widely acclaimed the victor in that debate, has additional opportunity to disprove the common perception that he’s an aloof rich man, unable to relate to working folk.

The “town hall” mode has pitfalls for participants. Forums on health care reform provided an emotional outlet four years ago for skeptics who denounced what would become known as Obamacare. That’s when “death panel” entered the national lexicon.

Tonight’s event won’t be quite so spontaneous. The Gallup polling organization is selecting questioners from undecided voters and a moderator, Candy Crowley of CNN, will try to stimulate a brief discussion following the candidate responses.

The first presidential debate and last week’s vice presidential version were moderated by professional journalists. Some people thought they interfered too much. Others complained they intervened too little.

Democracy in the raw is a little risky, but sometimes it won’t be denied, as documented last week in Danville by State Journal reporter Ryan Quinn’s coverage of the people’s carnival that swirled outside, beyond earshot of a more refined group in the Norton Center for the Arts at Centre College. The town-hall interrogators at Hofstra aren’t likely to get nearly so rambunctious as Danville’s “festival” crowd.

Democrats were gratified that their champion, Vice President Joe Biden, showed more life than the president had in his first encounter with Romney. Republicans, of course, were less enamored of Joker Joe’s performance. They felt Biden exhibited altogether too much levity, too little respect for the younger man, Congressman Paul Ryan, who wants to replace him. Previous debaters who’ve hammed it up or indulged in excessive mannerisms got mixed reviews. Al Gore’s eye rolling and George H.W. Bush’s watch-checking in the midst of opposition statements didn’t go over well with spectators.

But Obama does need to tap into a little of Biden’s vitality if he hopes to come back from his first-round defeat. He’s expected to be more assertive this time but has to avoid wandering out of character. Viewers will know if he’s faking the passion.

Even though the pressure’s on the president, Romney can still squander the momentum he’s gained. His attempts to project an average guy persona earlier in the campaign fell flat. Now Obama is expected to hit harder at the challenger’s distinction between the 47 percent of Americans he said pay no federal income taxes and the 53 percent who do pay income taxes. Romney, who was speaking privately to a group of rich contributors at the time, appeared to write off any hope of significant support from the 47 percent.

Neither man can afford to turn up his nose at any voter, regardless of tax bracket, in this tight election. Three weeks from today, all who exercise their rights will be counted.

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