It had the trappings of a town hall debate.
There was a moderator. The audience members had questions. There was a two-minute countdown clock for answers. And Donald Trump carried a microphone while patrolling a small stage.
But the similarities between what Trump faced Thursday night in New Hampshire in a warm-up town hall and what he’ll see Sunday night in St. Louis versus Hillary Clinton end there.
Trump didn’t actually interact with the audience, instead only conversing with a friendly moderator who read the questions —nearly all softballs submitted from the invitation-only crowd. And he publicly scoffed at his aides’ previous framing of the event as a warm-up for his pivotal second debate against Clinton.
“This isn’t practice. This has nothing to do with Sunday. We’re just here because we just wanted to be here,” Trump told the crowd in Sandown, which was comprised solely of supporters and local Republican leaders.
“I said, ‘Forget debate prep.’ I mean, give me a break,” said Trump, who mocked Clinton for spending days preparing. “She’s resting. She wants to build up her energy for Sunday night. And you know what? That’s fine. But the narrative is so foolish.”
For presidential candidates, a town hall debate is a test of stagecraft as much as substance. Trump and Clinton — she has far more experience in the format — will be fielding questions from undecided voters seated nearby. In an added dose of unpredictability, the format allows the candidates to move around the stage, putting them in unusually close proximity.
“There’s a lot more interaction, physical interaction,” says Judd Gregg, the former New Hampshire senator who helped President George W. Bush prepare for debates. Gregg said a candidate who is too aggressive in a town hall, either with the voters or a rival, “can come across looking really chippy, not looking presidential.”
After his uneven showing in their first debate, Trump’s candidacy may rise or fall on his ability to avoid that trap. The Republican repeatedly interrupted Clinton in their opening contest and grew defensive as she challenged his business record and recited his demeaning comments about women.
Those close to Trump have steadfastly insisted that the candidate did well in the first debate, but the hastily added New Hampshire town hall was a tacit acknowledgement that this particular format poses unique challenges and that Trump needed to fine-tune some of his responses to Clinton’s barbs.
The Republican nominee has reviewed video of the first debate and his aides have stressed the need to stay calm and to not let Clinton’s attacks — such as her invocation of a former beauty queen that sent Trump into a days-long tailspin — get under his skin.
Trump has tried out some new attack lines in recent days, though most of his debate prep continues to be rapid-fire, question-and-answer sessions with advisers on his plane as he kept up a busy campaign schedule that took him to Virginia, Colorado, Arizona and Nevada in the first half of the week. But while the campaign has built in more rehearsal time in the days before the second debate, no other mock debates are planned and the campaign is not using a stand-in for Clinton.
That stands in stark contrast to the meticulous debate preparations undertaken by the previous Republican nominee, Mitt Romney. The former Massachusetts governor prepared for the debates months in advance, studying President Barack Obama’s positions and style, exchanging briefing books with staff, and starting full-fledged practice debates several weeks ahead of their meeting.
The rehearsals were comprehensive. Podiums were built to the exact specifics of those on the debate stage and the mock debates were precisely timed. At a campaign retreat and in hotels across the country, the dimensions of the town hall format were copied to give Romney chances to practice walking around while answering audience questions.
Aides created the stage set up, complete with where the candidates would stand and where the moderator and questioners would sit.
Knowing that town hall events are different animals, they focused on Romney presenting himself: how he should walk, how he should gesture and smile, and how he should take the answer to a potentially specific audience question and broaden it to make a larger point or use it to pivot to an attack on Obama. In total, Romney did 16 mock debates.
The town halls have produced a series of moments that have helped define their elections.
President George H.W. Bush drew criticism in 1992 for conspicuously checking his watch. In 2008, Sen. John McCain seemed to wander about the stage as Obama spoke. Four years ago, Romney strode across the stage to confront Obama face to face.
During the 2000 election, George W. Bush was answering a question on leadership when Vice President Al Gore stood up from his chair and walked unnaturally close to his Republican rival. Bush turned to Gore, and with a slightly puzzled look on his face, gave him a nod and a smile. The audience broke into laughter.
That seemingly natural Bush reaction was actually well-rehearsed.
“His reaction was the exact same with Al Gore as it was with me — to look at me with a bemused smile and move on to his answer,” Gregg said. “We practiced.”
Pace contributed from Washington.
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