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Town hall debate format to prove trickier for Obama and Romney

Republican presidential candidate former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney picks up baby as he campaigns The Golden Lamb restaurant LebanOhio Saturday

Republican presidential candidate and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney picks up a baby as he campaigns at The Golden Lamb restaurant in Lebanon, Ohio, Saturday, Oct. 13, 2012. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak)

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Updated: November 16, 2012 6:20AM



BLUE ASH, Ohio — President Barack Obama knew he flopped in his first debate with Mitt Romney as soon as he walked off the stage in Denver — and didn’t change his mind once he saw it on tape.

Former White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs told CNN’s Candy Crowley on Sunday’s “State of the Union” about Obama’s harsh self-assessment — and how when he meets Romney in their second debate on Tuesday, “he has to be more energetic.”

The rivals will meet at Hofstra University in Hempstead, N.Y. in a session moderated by Crowley. The format is different — much trickier.

Moderators asked the questions at the first debate at the University of Denver and the vice presidential debate at Centre College in Danville, Ky., with Vice President Joe Biden and Rep. Paul Ryan.

The 90-minute Hofsta showdown will be a “town hall,” with questions on foreign and domestic policy coming from Crowley and an audience of about 80 uncommitted voters from around the Hempstead area selected by the Gallup Organization.

The extra challenge is to factor in unpredictable questions from voters — and to deal with a different set of optics. Instead of worrying about how a split screen will show reactions, the faces and tone of a voter/questioner may also have an impact.

Much has been made for example, of Biden’s laughing and smiling at Ryan; a candidate reacts like that to a voter at his own peril.

The next presidential debate is dramatically more important because Romney’s strong showing in Denver energized his backers, added to his crowds and for the first time, gave him an edge in national and battleground state polls.

Romney is stumping with a new exuberance — on display Saturday at a rally in the GOP stronghold of Lebanon, a small town in Ohio, a battleground state.

“Now about a week ago I had a debate and I did enjoy myself,” Romney said as the large crowd roared. “It was a very helpful opportunity.”

Obama and Romney prepped for Hofstra on Sunday. Obama camped at the Kingsmill resort in Williamsburg, Va., a battleground state; Romney practiced at a hotel in the Boston suburbs.

Meanwhile, their top aides worked the Sunday shows.

Gibbs said sarcastically about the first debate, “I think Mitt Romney’s performance was, indeed, magical and theatrical. Magical and theatrical largely because for 90 minutes he walked away from a campaign he had been running for more than six years previous to that.”

That brings me to . . .

UNFINISHED BUSINESS

Here’s a look at unfinished business that is likely to come up on Tuesday — whether from Crowley, the audience or Romney and Obama:

1. Will Obama call Romney a liar? To his face? And how does he do it without turning off voters?

Obama’s advisers have been saying a reason Obama did so poorly in Denver was while he was prepared for Romney to be aggressive, Obama did not expect Romney — and this is what they are saying — to lie about his record. But as we know, Obama did not call out Romney at the time.

Former President Bill Clinton called Romney in a quip, “He’s old Moderate Mitt.”

Said Gibbs on CNN, “People in these battleground states understand that Mitt Romney can walk away from his positions in a 90-minute debate, but they can’t walk away from the campaign and the record that he has established over the past many years.

Romney senior adviser Ed Gillespie told Crowley, “The president can change his style. He can change his tactics. He can’t change his record. And he can’t change his policies. And that’s what this election is about.”

2. How will Obama clean up after Biden’s statement at his debate regarding the murders of four U.S. diplomats in Libya. Biden said that “we weren’t told” more security was needed at the consulate in Benghazi.

That contradicted what State Department officials said.

This comes down to what Biden meant when he said the word “we,” and that kind of hair-splitting will not make Obama look presidential.

The Obama team is making this distinction: The White House did not know, the State Department did.

3. Will Obama bring up Romney’s tenure at Bain? That has been a major Democratic hit against Romney for months — but did not come up at Denver or Centre. Romney, trying to safeguard himself from attacks about Bain sending U.S. jobs overseas, has been blaming Obama — on the stump and in ads — on what he is calling “cheating” by China when it comes to trading with the U.S.

4. Romney has a flank exposed when it comes to abortion. At issue is whether Romney, who does not support abortion rights, wants to actively try to reverse Roe v. Wade. He told the Des Moines Register he will not ask Congress for abortion-related measures. However, Romney has backed congressional proposals to erode abortion rights. Ryan sidestepped that question at Centre.

The last debate is Oct. 22 at Lynn University in Boca Raton, Fla. — another battleground state.



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