8 Questions

Dan Balz on what to expect
in the presidential debates

Question 5: Does the new, more open, format favor either of the candidates?

The first and last presidential debates will feature a more open format. The debates will be divided into six blocks of 15 minutes each. PBS NewsHour Executive Editor Jim Lehrer, who will moderate Wednesday’s debate, has already announced the topics for the six blocks: economy, economy, economy, health care, the role of government and governing.

After an opening question and responses from the candidates, the moderators will have the remaining time to dig deeper, prompt direct engagement and pin down someone who tries to slip off the hard questions.

Reed Galen, a Republican strategist, noted that neither candidate “is best when given the opportunity to just talk and talk.” But both candidates can try to take advantage of the format to help make their case

A Democratic strategist said he believes the open format gives Obama “more time to pick apart the Romney record.” Other Democrats see Obama as better on his feet. Republicans say the format could help Romney look presidential and to come across as warmer and more likable — a major goal for the challenger.

The second of the three presidential debates will be a town hall meeting format, with most questions from voters rather than the moderator. Bill Clinton used this to his advantage in 1992, after George H.W. Bush was caught on camera checking his watch as if he were in a hurry to finish. In that debate, Bush stumbled over a question about the economy. Clinton stepped forward and did an, “I feel your pain” answer that carried the evening.

Both Obama and Romney have had experience with town hall formats on the campaign trail, if mostly from friendly audience. The key for both will be to make connections with the audience.