President Barack Obama and Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney. (July...

President Barack Obama and Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney. (July 20, 2012) Credit: Getty Images

If a memorable, spontaneous, or viral moment springs from the White House debates this fall, it might just happen on Long Island.

The presidential faceoff set for Oct. 16 at Hofstra University will follow a dramatically different format from other national debates that month, it was revealed this week.

The nonpartisan Commission on Presidential Debates announced that only the Hofstra event, second of the three for the top job, "will take the form of a town meeting in which citizens will ask questions of the candidates on foreign and domestic issues."

"Candidates each will have two minutes to respond, and an additional minute for the moderator to facilitate a discussion," the commission says. "The town meeting participants will be undecided voters selected by the Gallup Organization."

In the other two presidential debates, moderators will assign topics in six segments of 15 minutes each. They'll focus on domestic issues Oct. 3 in Denver, Colo., and on foreign policy on Oct. 22 in Boca Raton, Fla. It would seem that campaigns can prep more easily for that kind of format.

President Barack Obama and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney might best display their personal styles in the town-hall confrontation, perhaps promising more spontaneous exchanges.

Regardless of format, all three presidential debates and one vice presidential debate that month will mark a major shift in substance from 2008, when two U.S. senators, Obama and John McCain, clashed in the same David S. Mack Sports and Exhibition Complex at Hofstra.

This time Obama and Vice President Joe Biden, as White House incumbents, must answer for their record, and it will be the turn of Mitt Romney and his yet-to-be-determined running mate to promise a change in direction.

By Hofstra president Stu Rabinowitz's account, it's all good for the institution. Of the commission's debate formats, he said, "I would have taken any of them, and we didn't get to choose." He noted that the town-hall arrangement "probably involves the most logistical issues," and "I'm excited to see how it works. I'm pleased about it because it's different."

Hofstra gains added prestige for its Peter S. Kalikow Center for the Study of the American Presidency and the prominent speakers it hosts. Last time, Rabinowitz said, an estimated 3,600 news reporters on campus for debate week, combined with enormous Internet exposure, brought a public-relations boon "for people to get to know how good our students and faculty are, and how good our facilities are."

When McCain jousted with Obama, U.S. involvement in Iraq was ongoing, Osama bin Laden was alive, unemployment was reaching 6-plus percent, and health-care legislation was hypothetical. McCain cited Obama's man-on-the-street questioning by Samuel "Joe the Plumber" Wurzelbacher, to slam the Democrat's "spread-the-wealth" remark; now Wurzelbacher is Joe the Candidate, running for Congress in Ohio. Sarah Palin, McCain's running mate, was governor of Alaska; now she isn't. On hand to offer spin for Obama at Hofstra was Rahm Emanuel, now Chicago's mayor.

Occupy Wall Street, the tea party movement, stimulus, Dodd-Frank and plenty else all had yet to take form. Four years can be an epoch. Who expected New York to have four governors between late 2006 and early 2011?

Logistically, at least, it all comes full circle as the road to the White House stops again in Hempstead.


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