Town hall debate will test candidates’ stagecraft

Julie Pace
Associated Press

Washington — President George H.W. Bush conspicuously checked his watch. Al Gore got too close for comfort. Mitt Romney strode across stage to confront President Barack Obama face to face.

For presidential candidates, a town hall debate is a test of stagecraft as much as substance. When Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump meet Sunday night in St. Louis, they’ll be fielding questions from undecided voters seated nearby. In an added dose of unpredictability, the format allows the candidates to move around the stage, putting them in unusually close proximity.

“There’s a lot more interaction, physical interaction,” says Judd Gregg, the former New Hampshire senator who helped President George W. Bush prepare for debates. He said a candidate who is too aggressive in a town hall, either with the voters or a rival, “can come across looking really chippy, not looking presidential.”

After an uneven showing in his first debate, Trump’s candidacy may rise or fall on his ability to avoid falling into that trap. The Republican repeatedly interrupted Clinton in their opening contest and grew defensive as she challenged his business record and recited his demeaning comments about women.

Trump, who prefers drawing big crowds to rallies, has done only sporadic town halls and has rarely been challenged by voters face to face, except when his rallies are interrupted by protesters. In a nod to the challenge posed by Sunday’s format, he agreed to advisers’ suggestion that he get in some practice at a real town hall Thursday night in New Hampshire.

Trump has reviewed video of the first debate, and his aides have stressed a need to stay calm.

Presidential town hall debates are typically serious affairs and lack the liveliness of campaign trail events. Still, Trump adviser Peter Navarro said he believes his candidate will be energized by engaging with voters.

“Everything about that first debate environment was alien to the Trump culture of high energy interaction with people,” said Navarro, who has advised Trump on economic issues. “I think he’ll feel much more comfortable.”

Clinton is far more practiced at town halls and prefers smaller events with more direct voter engagement. Aides said she won’t shy away from raising recent revelations about Trump’s tax history or reminding voters of his pre-dawn Twitter attacks on a Miss Universe winner, but will aim to keep her focus more on the voters sitting on stage.