Town Hall Debate To Be Most Regulated To Date, Expert Says

CNN's Candy Crowley will moderate the presidential debate, but she is not supposed to ask questions.

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Stand-ins for Mitt Romney and Barack Obama run through a rehearsal with moderator Candy Crowley ahead of Tuesday's debate.
Stand-ins for Mitt Romney and Barack Obama run through a rehearsal with moderator Candy Crowley ahead of Tuesday's debate.

The brouhaha surrounding Candy Crowley's decision to take a more active role as moderator of the second presidential debate has somewhat obscured a larger point: the town hall format on display Tuesday isn't the same as it used to be.

According to George Farah, a political debate expert and election watch dog, the debate will be "the most regulated town hall format we've ever had." In the town hall format, everyday voters in the audience get to ask questions of the presidential candidates.

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In the past, audience members could ask follow-up questions if they felt the candidates didn't adequately answer their question. A good example of this is in the 1992 Clinton-Bush-Perot debates, when an audience member asked how the federal debt personally affected him. Instead of answering the question, Bush tried to move on to interest rates, and vaguely said the debt had affected him. The voter interjected, pressing him: "How?"

Bush finally said "I'm not sure I get it."

Stand-ins for Mitt Romney and Barack Obama run through a rehearsal with moderator Candy Crowley ahead of Tuesday's debate.
Stand-ins for Mitt Romney and Barack Obama run through a rehearsal with moderator Candy Crowley ahead of Tuesday's debate.

The stumping of the president may have led to what happened in the next election's debates in 1996 when, according to Farah, audience member follow-up questions were banned. And by 2004, voters questions were screened beforehand by the moderator for the first time, allowing the person to select which questions were desirable and which were not.

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"Now in this election, there's an additional step — that the moderator can't even ask questions. She's been reduced to the lady with the microphone who keeps time," says Farah.

The Commission on Presidential Debates, which runs the debates, did not respond to a request for comment on Tuesday's town hall format. But it's safe to say Crowley isn't keen to being reduced to Farah's description. She has said several times that she plans to ask her own follow-up questions of the candidates, despite a debate memorandum of understanding between the two campaigns that says she isn't supposed to. (That memo was obtained by Time's Mark Halperin, and can be seen here.) If she does ignore the rules, says Farah, "it will to the benefit of the Democratic process."

Crowley appears to agree with him. In an interview with Whispers in late September, she said she "would love a debate where the candidates have nothing to do with it, and just show up."

"I want no campaign involvement," she said.

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  • Elizabeth Flock is a staff writer for U.S. News & World Report. You can follow her on Twitter or Facebook or reach her at eflock@usnews.com.