Candidates To Go Town Hall Style In Next Debate

Weekend Edition host Rachel Martin speaks with NPR's Ari Shapiro and Scott Horsley about the upcoming presidential debate, the second of the election. Tuesday's debate will take place at Hofstra University in Hempstead, N.Y., and will have a town hall-style format.

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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Rachel Martin. What a difference a couple of weeks can make. When President Obama and Republican rival Mitt Romney faceoff in their second debate Tuesday night, almost two weeks will have passed since their first meeting in Denver. In that time, Governor Romney has erased the president's advantage in national polls and he's pulled ahead in some surveys. If the first debate was a turning point, what happens in round two? To talk about that question, I'm joined now by NPR's White House correspondents Ari Shapiro and Scott Horsley. Scott has been covering the president's re-election campaign and Ari has been covering the Romney campaign. We reached Ari at an event in Lancaster, Ohio. Welcome to both of you.

SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: Good to be with you.

ARI SHAPIRO, BYLINE: Hi, Rachel.

MARTIN: So, I want to start with Scott. A couple of weeks ago, the president was being very cautious during his debate, while Governor Romney needed a game changer, and he was aggressive on that stage. Have the tables now turned?

HORSLEY: Well, they have. It's almost a mirror image of what we had two weeks ago. This time, it's the president who needs to change it up. Governor Romney has some momentum. I don't think we could say that Romney can just coast from this point. The president says the fundamentals in the race haven't really changed. He still has more paths to an Electoral College victory. But definitely we're seeing a much tighter race. The president has to up his game and maybe needs to have a little of whatever coffee Joe Biden was drinking before his debate on Thursday night.

MARTIN: And, Ari, for the Romney campaign, is it just a case of let's just keep doing what we're doing?

SHAPIRO: You know, one of the strange quirks of this election is that some of Mitt Romney's strongest moments have been when he is at his weakest. That was true during the primary and it was certainly true during the first debate with President Obama. And so, one political scientist I spoke to said if Mitt Romney wants to win this election, he has to wake up every day and tell himself that he's 10 points behind in the polls. I spoke to campaign adviser Kevin Madden about this, who took a somewhat different view, suggesting that they just have to keep their eye on the goal and keep chugging ahead. Here's what he said to me:

KEVIN MADDEN: We never get too high when things are good, we never get too low when things are going through a rough patch. We also remain very focused on the task at hand, which is making sure that the governor's message about why he wants to be president and what he will do on the big issues, challenges that are facing the country, and making sure that that message is delivered to voters.

SHAPIRO: But they certainly appreciate that having a triumphant performance three weeks or four weeks before the election is very different from having a triumphant performance a few days before an election and they have to keep fighting as hard as they can, otherwise President Obama could easily pull back into the lead, having just closed the gap a couple of weeks ago.

MARTIN: OK. So, Scott, clearly, President Obama wants to be more aggressive this next debate. How does that actually translate to the debate stage? What should voters be looking for?

HORSLEY: Well, we might get some clues from the rallies the president's been holding since that first debate. He's been using all the comeback lines that his supporters wish he'd used in Denver. He's accused Governor Romney of undergoing an extreme makeover, redefining and in some cases flat-out misstating what his policies would do in the areas of health care or government spending or taxes. Here's the president in Miami this past week:

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: And when he's asked about the cost of his tax plan, he just pretends it doesn't exist. What $5 trillion tax cut? I don't know anything about a $5 trillion tax cut. Pay no attention to the facts right now, the tax cut on my website.

HORSLEY: The challenge for the president though is this next debate is going to be a town hall format with members of the public asking the questions, and historically, that's less about how the candidates deal with one another than how they relate to the people in the audience. So, in terms of delivering a sharp comeback to Governor Romney, this may not be the best setting for President Obama.

MARTIN: What about debate preparation? Ari, how has Governor Romney been getting ready for this second debate?

SHAPIRO: This last week in Ohio, we saw his first town hall meeting since August. He had not done any for quite a while, even though he'd done, according to his campaign's tally, more than a hundred since the beginning of this campaign. So, he certainly has experience for the town hall format. But then he's also been doing a lot of tele-town hall with voters in swing states that are closed to the press. So, it's an opportunity for him to perhaps practice taking questions without reporters sort of keying in on every single word that he says and holding him account for them.

MARTIN: And, Scott, what about the president? I mean, clearly he's got some more pressure on him to perform in this next debate. I imagine he might be putting a few more hours into his prep.

HORSLEY: Absolutely. He's been holed up in Williamsburg, Virginia all weekend to prepare. I think the Obama campaign early on underestimated the impact these debates could have. They poo-pooed all the time that the Romney camp was putting into preparation, criticized the Romney strategy, which saw these debates as a real turning point. Now, they have seemed to be a turning point and the Obama camp is playing catch up.

MARTIN: NPR White House correspondents Scott Horsley and Ari Shapiro. Thanks to you both.

HORSLEY: My pleasure.

SHAPIRO: You're welcome.

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