Campaign TV battleground moves to town halls

WASHINGTON – As the presidential primary campaign heads into the backstretch, the debate format appears to be giving way to “town halls.” That is, face-to-face candidate confrontations are largely being replaced with single candidates undergoing voter and moderator interrogations in various states.

In the early stage of the 2016 Republican nomination cycle, televised debates on network and cable carriers dominated, with 17 competitors involved – so many, in fact, that the field had to be split into a main event and an “undercard.”

Many of the debaters shunted to the latter complained of receiving second-class treatment, and others lamented that even in a two-hour marathon, insufficient time was allocated to them. As the field was winnowed down, the complaints lessened.

Still, with debates so frequent and bunched up, they began to sound repetitive, both in questions posed and answers given. They often descended into noisy personal name-calling and he-said, she-said nitpicking, as the combatants struggled for an advantage.

As the fields in both parties narrowed, the television hosts increasingly introduced the town-hall format, wherein a single candidate could be grilled at length by one or two moderators on specific issues. The result was generally beneficial to candidates and voters alike.

The candidate on the griddle was able to explain, or dissemble, at length why voters should cast their votes for him or her. And the moderators had ample time to probe for specific clues to the candidate’s core beliefs.

The hosts had to be on their toes to guard against showboating, with some succeeding more than others. But the alternate format often proved to be more productive for the voters.

A critical example occurred last Wednesday night on MSNBC, when moderator Chris Matthews, often overly dominating with his own views and rapid-fire deliveries, demonstrated how a probing line of questioning can pay off, for the electorate if not for the candidate.

Seated only a few feet from Donald Trump on the stage, Matthews peppered him on his anti-abortion position. Trump repeatedly hewed to his stand as “pro-life” as he was asked about the ramifications of punishing abortions, made legal in the Roe v. Wade decision of the Supreme Court.

Trump, in his counterpunching style, tried to divert Matthews by mentioning his Catholic faith, but the moderator feinted and bored in. “Do you believe in punishment for abortion, yes or no as a principle?” Matthews asked. Trump replied that there “has to be some form of punishment.” Matthews pressed him specifically: “For the woman?” Trump repeated: “There has to be some form.”

Campaign aides quickly recognized that Trump had made a tactical blunder, taking a position not held by the pro-life lobby. A correction was issued, with Trump saying the abortionist “would be held legally responsible, not the woman,” who would be “a victim in this case, as is the life in her womb.”

It may not be too much to suggest that this exchange could prove to be a turning point in Trump’s political career. It reinforces an already building case against him as a misogynist based on numerous other Trump comments about women, specific and general, that are now haunting his campaign.

The same line of questioning could well have taken place in the debate format. But the town hall forum was clearly more conducive to the concentrated interrogation of Trump that generated his damaging response, not to mention revealing his own disinformation on the standard pro-life position on the issue.

All this is not to say that the debate format should be abandoned. In this cycle, it has provided some of the liveliest and, yes, most entertaining moments. Remember the decimation of the robotic Sen. Marco Rubio at the hand of New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, himself an eventual campaign casualty?

Together, the two forms of political combat, steered by knowledgeable and fair moderators, are conducive to the goal of an informed electorate, which should be the prime objective, beyond ever-higher viewership and television revenues.