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Eyes are on the voters in town hall-style debates


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Because candidates are free to walk about, town halls are body-language danger zones.

In 2000, Al Gore was ridiculed for striding unnaturally close to George W. Bush as his rival spoke. Bush deflected Gore with a surprised look and curt nod, to audience laughter. In 2008, comedians emphasized McCain’s age by ridiculing the way he seemed to wander aimlessly about the stage while Obama talked.

href="http://storify.com/DigitalFirst/how-to-ask-a-town-hall-question" target="_blank">View the story "Presidential town-hall debate: How to ask a good question" on Storify]

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Then there are the questions. They tend to be more straightforward and less pointed than those that journalists ask in debates. But they can be unpredictable. And while debaters often dodge a moderator’s question by veering off to some other talking point, it’s less acceptable to treat a citizen’s query that way.

In 2004, President George W. Bush took heat for failing to come up with a specific mistake when a woman asked him to describe three wrong decisions. That town hall also tested the format’s more civil tone with sharp exchanges over the Iraq War. John Kerry labeled Bush’s campaign a "weapon of mass deception."

Town halls have lost some of their spontaneity. The 80 or so undecided voters chosen for Tuesday’s event must submit their questions in advance and moderator Candy Crowley of CNN will decide which people to call on. She can pose her own follow-up questions.

In 1992, questions weren’t screened beforehand. Simpson walked through the audience Oprah-style and a producer signaled which person to talk to next, seeking a good demographic mix. She had no idea what each person might ask.

"They were not the questions the media had been focusing on," said Simpson, who now teaches journalism at Emerson College in Boston. "They were asking about bread-and-butter issues that they were interested in — the education in their schools, the crime in their neighborhoods, the economy and jobs."

"We’re still talking about the same things — the deficit, jobs, outsourcing," she said. "We’ll probably hear some of the same subjects Tuesday."

Associated Press writer Larry Margasak contributed to this report.


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