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Opinion

Filler: Why are town hall debates so powerful?

Crews work to complete the stage during a

Crews work to complete the stage during a rehearsal for the second presidential debate to be held at the David Mack Center at Hofstra University in Hempstead, New York. (Oct. 15, 2012) Credit: Getty Images

As the countdown to Tuesday night’s presidential debate at Hofstra runs, it’s interesting to look back at the nation’s first look at the town hall format, 20 years ago, and how it went down.

In 1992 Bill Clinton was an underdog candidate running against an incumbent, President George H.W. Bush, who had piles of experience and a blessedly short and successful Middle East war on his resume.

What Clinton has was a way with regular folks, and what was working best in his campaign was town-hall meetings, in which the former Arkansas governor would meet with average citizens and answer their concerns. Nobody has ever radiated empathy and compassion like Bill Clinton. His Oprah-like ability to relate was beginning to be legend then and still hasn’t faded now, 12 years after he left the White House.

So Clinton pushed for the format to be used on one of that year’s debates, for the first time ever, got his way, and showed Bush and independent candidate Ross Perot, also on the stage, how it is done.

What’s best remembered about Bush’s flailing that night was the way he checked his watch as a woman was stating her question, looking like he wanted to get home early and snuggle into bed with some milk and cookies and the need to explain himself before the national electorate was just a big hassle.

But after he checked his watch, Bush booted his reply to the woman’s poorly worded query, which, according to the Associated Press, was: How had the national debt personally affected the candidates.

That’s admittedly a tough, poorly worded question. The national debt doesn’t really affect us personally, as much as the government’s responses to it, raising taxes, say, or cutting spending, do. It’s not as if kids come to the house raising money for the national debt, or it makes you cut wars short.

But Bush totally fumbled it, stumbled through a bland answer, and argued with the woman about whether rich people are affected by the debt the same as poor people.

Clinton, when it was his turn to respond to the same question, went all "SuperClinton, Lover of All HUmans" on it, crossing the stage to lock eyes with the woman and waxing emotional about the pain he had personally seen poverty inject in people’s lives when he governed Arkansas.

The tussle, which most people agreed Clinton won hands down, was so popular that there has been a town-hall debate in every presidential election since. Because it forces candidates to talk directly to a person in the audience, it also forces them to talk (if they’re to be successful) in a way that viewers at home can relate to.

It is, thus, a candidate’s best opportunity to win voters over, but also a high-risk chance to lose those voters permanently.

If only we had Ross Perot to hop up on stage and liven things up...

Pictured above: Crews work to complete the stage during a rehearsal for the second presidential debate to be held at the David Mack Center at Hofstra University in Hempstead, New York. (Oct. 15, 2012)

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