HEMPSTEAD, N.Y. — The everyday Americans who engaged the candidates at Tuesday's second presidential debate spoke directly to a question widely expected to decide this election:
Whom can they trust to improve their faith in the economy, the country and their futures?
A college student, a respiratory therapist and a club owner were among the undecided Long Island voters selected randomly by the Gallup organization to pose questions to President Obama and Republican nominee Mitt Romney during their only town-hall-style debate of the season.
The questioners at Hofstra University seemed like real people, speaking in sometimes thick New York accents, occasionally fumbling to find their reading glasses or the notecards on which they’d scrawled their questions. They sharply probed the candidates’ weaknesses — asking questions that prompted exchanges about Romney’s wealth or Obama's response to the violence in Libya. Their topics, in the aggregate, made plain the economic uncertainty that dozens of polls have already told us haunts a wide swath of America.
“Mr. President, Governor Romney, as a 20-year-old college student, all I hear from professors, neighbors and others is that when I graduate, I will have little chance to get employment,” began Jeremy Epstein, the evening’s first questioner. “What can you say to reassure me, but more importantly my parents, that I will be able to sufficiently support myself after I graduate?”
Katherine Fenton, a young woman, offered a glimpse of the uncertainty through her own prism: “In what new ways do you intend to rectify the inequalities in the workplace, specifically regarding females making only 72 percent of what their male counterparts earn?”
Some questions were framed as a referendum on Obama, an effort to get at what he’s done to deserve reelection. Phillip Tricolla asked the president to explain why gas prices are so high. Susan Katz said she was “disappointed” with the lack of progress she’s seen over the past four years.
Some of these questioners left the impression that they like the president and may even have supported him last time. But their questions suggested that they are searching for a reason they should do so again next month.
The questioners also succeeded in an area that the moderators of the previous debates — Jim Lehrer at the first presidential debate in Denver and Martha Raddatz with the vice-presidential candidates in Kentucky — did not: They asked questions about complex topics, including taxes and foreign policy, in plain English.
Mary Follano succeeded even after a stumble in the middle of her moment.
“Governor Romney, you have stated that if you’re elected president, you would plan to reduce the tax rates for all the tax brackets and that you would work with the Congress to eliminate some deductions in order to make up for the loss in revenue.
“Concerning these various deductions, the mortgage deductions, the charitable deductions, the child tax credit and also the — oh, what’s that other credit? I forgot.”
“You’re doing great,” Obama offered.
“Oh, I remember,” Follano continued. “The education credits, which are important to me, because I have children in college. What would be your position on those things, which are important to the middle class?”
Little information was made available by the Commission on Presidential Debates about the questioners. But public records revealed a Mary Follano, for instance, who is 54, lives in Oceanside, N.Y., and works as a respiratory therapist. She is a registered Republican. Trocolla is a Republican, too, aged 52 and the owner of a club. Kerry Ladka, 61, is a registered Republican and said during the debate that he works at Global Telecom Supply in Mineola. His question, he said, came from his “brain trust” at the office.
One surprise of the evening was how little the two candidates tried to interact with their inquisitors. Both men walked up to the questioners and listened patiently while they spoke. But they spent most of the evening trying to pivot to a direct conversation with the other rather than engaging their audience.
Romney, responding to Follano’s tax question, started by saying, “Let me tell you, you’re absolutely right about part of that” — not exactly a warm and fuzzy outreach. At another moment, Romney initially ignored Katz’s question about her disappointment in Obama’s four years in order to rebut the president’s previous remarks on women’s health issues.
“Thank you. And I appreciate that question,” Romney said. “I just want to make sure that, I think I was supposed to get that last answer.”
But he seemed to realize the peril of turning his back on his inquisitor.
“Let me come back,” he said after some back-and-forth with moderator Candy Crowley, “and — and answer your question.”
Alice Crites contributed to this report.