Hofstra University prepares for tonight's presidential debate

HEMPSTEAD, N.Y. -- Professionally produced political signs in Hofstra University's student center are interspersed among hand-lettered posters announcing fraternity and sorority events.

Across this Long Island campus, microphones have been tested, cameras have been set and chairs -- enough for 80 uncommitted Nassau County voters -- have been set out in a semi-circle.

Everything is in place except the candidates, who have been preparing for their second head-to-head matchup in a series of three presidential debates.

Here's what political scientists said they expect at tonight's debate: more energy from President Barack Obama, less dodging from his Republican opponent, Mitt Romney, less aggression toward the questioners, more relating, and perhaps some wandering around the stage, a la John McCain in 2008.

Tonight's debate is town-hall style, different from any of the other presidential and vice presidential matchups this session. That means no lecterns and a lot less formality.

And this time voters will be asking the questions. That means the candidates will have to be more careful, not just about what they say but how they say it. There will be no interrupting the questioners who, this time, aren't journalists and experienced moderators but citizens unaccustomed to the spotlight.

"You can't evade a citizen who's looking you in the eye and whose vote you need the same way you can evade a journalist," said Diana Carlin, professor of communication at St. Louis University and founder of Debate Watch, a national voter education program that held a pre-debate discussion Monday night at Hofstra.

"These are people who are representing all of us who are watching on television. These are average citizens asking questions average citizens would ask. It may not be as aggressive and it may not be as informed, but it's on voters' minds and they are expecting real answers," Ms. Carlin said. "Voters are going to be watching candidates' behavior" toward the questioners.

The candidates are unaccustomed to this sort of environment. Both have conducted town-hall style forums this election cycle, but those were before friendly crowds.

"The trick for both of them will be not to fall into their alpha male roles and start snapping at people asking the questions," said Christaina Greer, a political scientist from Fordham University who is moderating a debate watch party tonight at the Apollo Theater in New York City about 25 miles away. "You have to make sure you're attacking your opponent, not the questioners, who are potential voters."

The debate is somewhat of a do-over for Mr. Obama, who will have to improve on his lackluster performance of two weeks ago in Colorado. He'll be looking to repudiate Mr. Romney's claims and control the nonverbal actions that made him appear disengaged and disdainful in Denver.

"Historically, incumbent presidents don't do well in the first debate because they haven't done it in four years and because they're not used to people pushing back. They're kind of in a bubble," Ms. Greer said.

Joe Valenzano III, professor of communication at the University of Dayton, said the president will need to "study the facts, present them clearly and do what Romney did in the first debate: disagree without being disagreeable."

Mr. Obama will have to be careful to refute Republican claims without getting lost in minutia, said Elvin Lim, associate professor of government at Wesleyan University in Connecticut. "With only a few minutes per question, when you're explaining, you're losing. Instead, he should call Mitt Romney out only on clear, verifiable flip-flops or untruths rather than, for example, focus on the math of how to make up for a $5 trillion tax cut," Mr. Lim said.

"He must pick his battles and wait for the right moment to pull a punch or two."

Mr. Romney, meanwhile, will need to be prepared for more aggression from his opponent. That could mean trying to trap the president into appearing angry and arrogant, professors said.

"If he maintains his cool, demonstrates command of the facts and lets the president come across as angry and aggressive while he is knowledgeable, thoughtful and respectful even in his dissent, he can score big in the town-hall format," Mr. Valenzano said.

Tonight's debate is expected to cover both domestic and foreign policy. The questions will be asked by likely voters of Nassau County who say they don't yet know who they'll vote for. They'll submit their questions to moderator Candy Crowley of CNN, who will screen them to eliminate duplication and ensure a breadth of topics.

Several Hofstra students interviewed Monday in the Mack Student Center said they're hoping the candidates will address student loans, federal grants and the cost of higher education.

"I'm here on a full scholarship, but I'm pretty sure a lot of my friends don't want to see their grants go away and their costs go up," said Andre Campbell, 21, a business marketing major for Harrisburg.

Accounting major Douglas Brick, 19, of Nassau County is a sophomore, but he's already concerned about postgraduation job prospects and he wants to know what the candidates will do to help.

"We've been going to college and spending all this money. We want to know there's going to be something for us in the future," Mr. Brick said.

His friend Daniel Fiore, 20, of Suffolk County, N.Y., just wants to make sure no one embarrasses the university by asking a question about pizza.

The "Pizza Hut question" was all the buzz on campus Monday after the restaurant announced -- and then retracted -- an offer to provide free pizza for life to anyone who would ask "Pepperoni or sausage?"

Mr. Fiore said he hopes no one bites.

"You're speaking to the president of the United States and you're going to ask that bogus question?" he said. "These are the most powerful people in the world and they're on the campus we live on."

Jonise Boyd, 21, a broadcast journalism major from Indianapolis, said tonight's debate could make a difference in whom she votes for. She'll be listening to their answers closely.

"I really want to hear what they say about student loans," she said. "I'm excited to watch."

Noelle Vaccaro, 19, a hostess at an off-campus restaurant, will be watching, too, although she's disappointed that the debate is at Hofstra instead of nearby Adelphi University, where she studies elementary education and psychology. She's already pretty sure she's going to vote for Mr. Romney but wants to hear both candidates.

"Everything Obama did with health care is good, but the economy has stagnated," she said.

Recent polls put the candidates in a dead heat going into tonight's debate, which begins at 9.

education - nation - electionspresident

Washington bureau chief Tracie Mauriello: tmauriello@post-gazette.com or 703-996-9292. First Published October 16, 2012 4:00 AM


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