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Obama will try to bend town hall debate format to his advantage

 

WILLIAMSBURG, VA -- Looking to redeem himself after a bland first debate, President Barack Obama will face off against Mitt Romney Tuesday in a town hall-style debate, in which audience members are able to engage the candidates directly.

Pre-screened, undecided voters will pose questions to Obama and Romney, and while the president has only held two town halls since he kicked off his re-election campaign, his stylistic approach to those events may indicate how he’ll approach Tuesday’s high-stakes debate.

In both town halls -- one with Cleveland voters in July, the other hosted by Univision in September -- the president strongly criticized Romney even as he answered audience questions about his own policies, a balance campaign spokeswoman Jen Psaki said Monday that he’s trying to strike in this debate.

“He’s going to be firm, but respectful in correcting the record in the times we expect Mitt Romney will hide from and distort his own policies,” she told reporters at the president’s hotel, adding, “the audience is the people in the room, but also the people at home, and certainly he takes that into account.”

Related: First Thoughts: Why tonight's debate could be so crucial, Part 2

At the Univision forum, in fact, the president had a rejoinder for Mitt Romney’s secretly recorded comments about the “47 percent,” which he was panned for not bringing up at the first debate in Denver, Colo.

“When you express an attitude that half the country considers itself victims, that somehow they want to be dependent on government, my thinking is maybe you haven't gotten around a lot,” he told Univision’s Jorge Ramos in response to a question about the remarks.

And at the town hall in Cleveland, Obama easily steered responses back to criticism of his opponent, even if the question was not about Romney -- a tactic that might serve him well come Tuesday, given the prevailing view that he needs to be more aggressive against the former Massachusetts governor than in their first meeting.

When asked by an Ohio voter how he would try to “unite everyone” in a second term, the president decried partisan rancor in Washington before launching into a point-by-point policy comparison with his opponent.

The Daily Rundown's Chuck Todd takes a look at past town hall style presidential debates, and talks with veteran journalist Carole Simpson who moderated the 1992 town hall style debate.

“On things like ‘Don't Ask, Don't Tell,’ Mr. Romney wants to reverse my position," Obama said. "On issues like immigration -- I believe in comprehensive immigration reform; he does not.  On issues related to women, I believe that Planned Parenthood does a lot of good, and that women's health -- women should be able to control their own health care decisions. He does not.”

After laying out a few more of their differences, the president concluded his response to how he would unite the country by warning that the audience could count on a President Romney “implementing the plan that he and the Republicans in Congress have put forward. “

Even when he’s not seeking to criticize Romney, Obama has had no trouble steering a conversation to the question he wants to answer while relating it to the question that was asked.

And he also has a specific verbal tell when he’s about to change the subject -- or at least, broaden it: “first of all.”

When Univision moderator Jorge Ramos grilled Obama over why he hadn’t accomplished immigration reform in his first term, the president began his response by taking a rhetorical step back, framing his answer against a large contextual backdrop.

“Let me first of all, Jorge, make a point that when we talked about immigration reform in the first year, that's before the economy was on the verge of collapse, Lehman Brothers had collapsed, the stock market was collapsing, and so my first priority was making sure that we prevented us from going into a Great Depression,” he said.

He answered other questions similarly, using the phrase “first of all” seven times during the Univision town hall, in which there were 18 questions.

And at the Cincinnati event, he used it five times out of eight questions, including in a response to the mother of a gay son who asked what the president’s “next steps” were for the LGBT community.

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“First of all, I think what the American people have seen and made such progress on is recognizing the idea of equal rights, equal dignity, equal respect for everybody. That applies to everybody,” he said.

But those preambles eat up precious minutes that the famously loquacious president needs given Tuesday’s two-minutes-per-response format, lest he risk moderator Candy Crowley calling “time!” just as he is getting around to his point.

In addition to the length of his answers, Obama will also have to be mindful of his reactions to attacks Romney will level while standing just a few feet away. Obama was able to keep his emotions in check when the Univision moderators accused him of breaking his promises on immigration reform.

In fact, he joked about it at one point.

"Jorge, as you remind me, my biggest failure so far is we haven't gotten comprehensive immigration reform done,” he told the co-host.

While the president’s two previous campaign-season town halls may shed a bit of light on his stylistic performance, there are perhaps too few examples of them to make too definitive an assessment.

But if Mitt Romney, who has done seven town halls since clinching the nomination, has been reviewing his past performances as preparation for this debate, he’ll have just those two events to anticipate what sort of opponent he’ll meet at Hofstra University.