Obama, Romney look to channel Bill Clinton in next presidential debate

Both Mitt Romney and President Obama are looking to channel one man at Tuesday night's debate: former President Bill Clinton.

According to political consultants on both sides of the aisle, Clinton's 1992 performance against then-President George H.W. Bush and Ross Perot serves the gold standard of the town-hall format.

It's a high bar for Obama and Romney to meet in their second presidential debate, where they'll be questioned by undecided voters for 90 minutes at Hofstra University. Neither one of them excels at that type of retail politics, and with the presidential election essentially deadlocked with just three weeks to go, the stakes — and pressure — couldn't be much higher.

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The '92 debate was a full-bore demonstration of Clinton at his best "I feel your pain" moment, with the future president engaging and empathizing with his audience over a struggling economy as his opponents never strayed far from their seats and spoke in generalities or theories.

"Bill Clinton understood the choreography of the debate — he walked up to the questioner, physically got close to them, and answered them directly," said Democratic strategist Tad Devine. "He came across better because of the human connection, while the other candidates stood near their chairs, and looked like they were distant."

Clinton's success was one part genuine political skill, and one part stagecraft. The former president made sure to walk out close to the audience so that camera shots included undecided voters flanking him from the sides. And Clinton spoke plainly, either enumerating his positions into digestible soundbites or referencing people he had met on the campaign trail or during his time as governor of Arkansas.

But unlike Clinton, who cut his teeth climbing the ranks of Arkansas politics, neither Romney nor Obama has shown a particular aptitude at the challenging art of the town hall.

"Obama has to connect with people on a level he's not used to, meaning he can't be the professor and lecture; nor can Mitt Romney be the business executive looking at things systematically," said Republican strategist Ron Bonjean.

Democratic strategist Christy Setzer agrees that "neither of the candidates are particularly adept at these one-on-ones," in the way that someone like Clinton or Vice President Biden can authentically speak about middle America.

"You have to be Oprah here," said Setzer. "You have to get into the audience and you have to be involved."

That style could force Obama to face one of his biggest concerns from the first debate: he has seemed detached from debate proceedings, either taking notes or looking at the floor as his opponent speaks.

"The emotional energy in a town hall is kinetic," said Republican strategist Matt Mackowiak. "If you're walking around, hearing directly from people, it's different than a moderator asking questions. With actual voters, you never know what you're going to get, and there can be real moments. By virtue of that alone, Obama should be better than he was before."

But the incumbent president also faces a stiff challenge. His shaky debate performance earlier this month led to a rapid decline in the polls that seems to only recently have stabilized; another misstep could seriously damage his prospects for reelection.

Moreover, some aides have pledged that Obama will more aggressively challenge Romney on the Republican nominee’s recent pivots toward the middle.

“He has to demonstrate and show passion and a kind of fighting spirit,” said Democratic strategist Doug Thornell. “He has to reassure Democrats and his base that he’s pushing back and calling out Gov. Romney on some of his past statements that he’s now trying to abandon.”

But strategists say that while the town hall might naturally get the president more engaged in the back-and-forth, it could also handcuff his ability to adopt an attack dog role.

“No way can he pull a Joe Biden, because it would seem disrespectful,” said Bonjean. “The president is under a tremendous amount of pressure to show aggressiveness, but he really has to thread the needle, because it will be hard to challenge Romney in this forum without looking too aggressive.”

If Obama launches off into unprompted attacks on Romney, or spends too much time correcting the record, rather than answering questions posed by undecided voters, it could undermine his effort.

Romney senior adviser Ed Gillespie also believes that the president will also struggle to defend his record, which will, as a byproduct of incumbency, be a relevant issue for undecided voters.

"The president can change his style, he can change his tactics, he can't change his record, he can't change his policies,” Gillespie told CNN.

Unsurprisingly, the Obama campaign feels as if it's up to the task.

“You should expect that he’s going to be firm but respectful in correcting the record and the times we expect Mitt Romney will hide from and distort his own policies,” said Obama spokeswoman Jen Psaki. “He’s energized and I expect he will also be making a passionate case. The audience is the people in the room but also the people at home and certainly he takes that into account in how he’s preparing and looking ahead to tomorrow.”

And Democratic strategists argue that it’s possible to use the town-hall format to their advantage, challenging Romney to provide policy specifics on what deductions would be eliminated from his tax plan or which government programs would be cut in his budget.

“You have to do it a little more delicately, but it’s almost more appropriate when you’re surrounded by voters to turn and say, look, they deserve to know what you’re going to do on these things and why you are hiding from the American people,” said Thornell.

Devine, a veteran of the Gore and Kerry campaigns, also says that while many assume the pressure is on Obama on Tuesday night, Romney could also be facing a make-or-break moment.

“If [Romney] falls short, he runs a risk of backsliding really quickly,” Devine. “Romney’s problem, if he doesn’t do really well, is that voters are going to go back to what they already believe, and the polls show that even now, the president leads not just where he needs to, but on the whole range of leadership issues.”

But another disastrous performance could put the proverbial nail in the president’s reelection coffin. Romney’s win in the first debate was the largest in the history of the Gallup poll, and the president has seen his leads in crucial swing states like Virginia, Florida and Colorado evaporate.

“Obama doesn’t talk to people, he certainly doesn’t get hard questions from real people regularly, and so pulling out a Clinton ‘I feel your pain’ thing — it’s just an impossible standard,” said Mackowiak. “Democrats just have unrealistic expectations of what is possible for Obama in this one.”

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