||One of the nation's top political analysts, Stuart Rothenberg, dissects politics at the congressional and statewide levels.|
The CNN/WMUR Town Hall Meetings at Dartmouth
By Stuart Rothenberg
October 29, 1999
Web posted at: 2:30 p.m. EDT (1830 GMT)
They weren't debates, and GOP front runner George W. Bush passed up the Republican event, but both parties gave state and national reporters and TV viewers an initial glimpse of the 2000 elections at CNN-sponsored "Town Hall meetings" in Hanover, New Hampshire.
While the winners and losers weren't always easy to identify, the events gave all of the presidential hopefuls an opportunity to make their case to voters and a chance to take a shot or two at their opponents. The two meetings actually produced very different events, in part because of the different fields, but also because of the kinds of questions asked by attendees.
Both events featured questions from the audience (selected by CNN and WMUR) directed to particular candidates, with no time for rebuttals by other candidates.
The Democratic event was far more interesting than the GOP meeting, possibly because it was a two-man event, but also because of Bush's absence.
Vice President Al Gore and former New Jersey senator Bill Bradley displayed relatively few differences on the issues. And when there were difference, it was Gore, who has lost a big early lead in the state, who went out of his way to contrast his views to Bradley's.
The Vice President emphasized his opposition to school choice and charged that Bradley's health care plan would eat up all of the projected budget surplus, making it impossible to spend more money on other worthwhile programs. But he didn't engage in the full-scale attack on Bradley that some anticipated.
Bradley basically turned the other cheek - as he has done for a few weeks - only once rebutting Gore's charge about the cost of Bradley's health care plan.
With few substantive differences between the Democratic candidates, voters may have focused on style. Here, the differences were pronounced.
Gore wanted to put to rest criticism that he is stiff and boring, and his game plan included making an effort to be more energetic and personable. Repeatedly trying to engage those selected to ask questions - and even telling a joke in the middle of one answer - the Vice President tried to demonstrate his candidate skills.
But Gore ended up looking as if he were trying way too hard to be engaging -- a politician's attempt to look sincere and interested. It's hard to believe that the Vice President's style made him more personally appealing.
Bradley, in contrast, maintained his generally thoughtful, low-key approach. He clearly was less animated than Gore, but his style seemed more sincere, less like a politician trolling for votes.
It's likely that few voters watched the Democratic event, and that even fewer changed their opinions because of the Town Meeting. But at the least, Gore missed an opportunity to establish some momentum for his campaign, and Bradley found that he could do well sharing the stage with the vice president.
Many observers expected the Republicans to be more combative because of the need to bring Gov. Bush back to the pack and the desire of the hopefuls to improve their standing in the crowd. But in the end, the GOP event was less fulfilling.
Sen. John McCain seemed to get the best reaction to his comments (no doubt because the audience appeared to be filled with Democrats) as he repeatedly hammered "special interests" and the need to reform government. Gary Bauer demonstrated his political independence and was probably the most articulate Republican. Sen. Orrin Hatch was more animated than usual, for the first time sounding as if he was really running for president. Alan Keyes was as entertaining as ever, never backtracking from his views.
Publisher Steve Forbes hoped to establish himself as a major opponent for the absent Bush, but he seemed comfortable only when he was talking about taxes. He was, as usual, weak in terms of style and overall presentation.
The GOP event saw no fireworks. Apart from a brief exchange between Bauer and Forbes on taxes, and a couple of mentions of Bush's absence (including a joke by Forbes), none of the Republicans mentioned each other or compared their views to anybody else's.
One of the problems was the audience at the Republican meeting. Their questions (both the topics and the tone) displayed a distinctly liberal bent. There was just one question about gun control and one about abortion. And the abortion query seemed to come from a pro-choice attendee.
Conservative viewers may well have heard little distinguishing the candidates, and the questions were a big reason.
The format -- with voters asking the questions and each candidate receiving his own question - probably contributed to the civility (or, given your point of view, dullness) of the events. Without exchanges between the candidates, nobody was willing to spend time attacking an opponent. That will change as the calendar moves closer to the Iowa caucuses and to the New Hampshire primary.