Obama vs. Romney, Round 2: What to Watch for at the Town Hall Debate

Presidential debate
Presidential debate

The first debate between Mitt Romney and Barack Obama accomplished what few debates in history have: a dynamic change in the state of the race. We said the first debate was going to have an impact, but even we have been surprised how much it has changed the race -- for now.

With respect to the vice presidential debate, while it was as fun to watch as we predicted (we're still wondering how in Vice President Joe Biden gets his teeth so white and Rep. Paul Ryan gets his hair so full), it did little to change the dynamics of the race. What it did accomplish was to stop cold -- at least until tonight -- the growing drumbeat in the media that the Obama campaign was spiraling downward and that Romney had become the frontrunner.

All that was prologue. Tonight, in a setting that would have made Will Rogers proud, the show will be on full display.

The question is ... what kind of show will it be?

The greatest risk both candidates face is not from each other but from a format that has emasculated and embarrassed its share of politicians. Yes, the dreaded town hall. We know it sounds easy, but getting asked live questions -- let alone tough questions -- by actual voters changes the tone of a debate. You can attack a moderator -- that's almost to be expected -- but you can never, EVER, attack a real voter, no matter how crazy their question.

Tonight's audience will be comprised of "undecided voters" as selected by Gallup. Having done focus groups with undecided voters for more than a decade, we can tell you that identifying who is truly undecided is no easy task. It takes multiple screenings just to weed out folks who like to say they're undecided but clearly aren't. That being said, both candidates will have to contend with the sort of tough and unpredictable questions that can throw the best politician off his "A" game.

So that's the preview. Now let's break down the five things to watch for this evening.

1. To Be Aggressive or Not To Be Aggressive, That Is the Question.

Everyone is telegraphing that President Obama should and will be far more aggressive in this debate. Sounds really easy, but here's the problem. It's a town hall debate, people. Being super aggressive will not go down well with the live audience. The cameras will be panning to them looking for reactions -- particularly, negative reactions.

The fact is that one of the most difficult things to do in a town hall is look an audience member in the eye and then, without missing a beat, gut your opponent. It can be done, but it's a fine line between being "aggressive" and being "rude." Cross that line and you're finished.

2. Lose the Watch, and Don't Stand so Close to Me.

How you look to voters during a debate can either help you or kill you. Amazingly, some candidates seem to forget there are cameras on them during the entire debate -- even when they're not answering questions.

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In 1992, then-President George H.W. Bush infamously looked at his watch during the town hall debate. It was a devastating moment for Bush and helped seal his fate.

In 2000, after a subpar performance in which he was accused of not being "aggressive enough" (sound familiar?), then-Vice President Al Gore came into the second debate hotter than a jackrabbit. Case in point, the memorable moment where he stood way too close to Bush just as Bush was about to answer a question. Which leads us to this important lesson: Don't try to intimidate your debate opponent physically. Voters at home don't like it.

Tonight, keep an eye out for the candidates' body language, how they interact with each other, how they look when they're answering questions, and more important, how they interact with the voters in the hall. Do they work the room? Do they ask the voter a follow-up? Do they try to make a personal connection? Do they stumble about or say something that elicits groans from the crowd? Anything can happen, and thanks to cable news, Google, Twitter and Facebook, we'll all know about it in seconds.

3. The "Hug and Cut."

The truth is, the last thing America wants to see are two fighting politicians pounding each other for 90 minutes. If this debate gets too hot, or if one candidate gets too hot, it will backfire. The best strategy is what we call the "Hug and Cut" (i.e. praise your opponent first -- good father, good husband, good man, who is [insert selective praise here]) -- and then "cut" with some targeted criticism. The best practitioner: Bill Clinton, of course.

4. Cold Mitt vs. Empathetic Mitt.

Mitt Romney has often been described as cold or awkward. In the first debate, he came across as strong, empathic, and determined. This upcoming debate will now put Romney's empathy bona fides, as well as his policy positions, to the test. The question is which Romney will show up, "Cold Mitt" or "Empathetic Mitt"?

Romney may have all the answers, but if he comes across as cold and indifferent -- on even just one question -- it could prove very costly. Romney must display his empathy for the entire debate, because "Cold Mitt" will not win Ohio, or this election. Obama knows this. Watch for Obama to try and paint Romney as distant and indifferent.

5. Please, Not "That Question."

At some point during the town hall, each candidate will get asked one uncomfortable question by one of the undecided voters. It may not be difficult to answer per se, but it will make him uncomfortable. It could be about religion, or abortion, or a litany of social issues. Whatever "that question" is, you'll know it as soon as you hear it, so make sure you're paying attention. The initial response will be skirt the question, but then the moderator may come back and press him on it. The bottom line: There will be no escaping ... Romney and Obama will have to answer.

And those candid, off-the-cuff answers will give us one great show to remember.

Chris Kofinis is a Democratic strategist. Frank Luntz is a Republican pollster and strategist. AOL has an elections content partnership with Chris Kofinis and Luntz Global.

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