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Tales from town halls

The candidates talk. The voters ask questions. It seems simple, but the vast majority of Americans will never see the inside of one of these forums. What really happens inside?
Image: John McCain
Republican presidential hopeful, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., speaks to a standing-room-only crowd at the town hall in New London, N.H., Sunday, Nov. 18, 2007.Jim Cole / AP file
/ Source: National Journal

For months now, the presidential hopefuls have been trooping into rooms full of voters in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina. The candidates talk. The voters ask questions. It seems simple, but the vast majority of Americans will never see the inside of one of these forums. What really happens inside campaign town hall meetings? The NBC News/National Journal reporters who travel with the candidates offered some observations.

Fred Thompson doesn't always take questions. When he does, he typically answers only a few before an aide hustles him away, citing his busy schedule. More than once, Thompson has then retreated to his luxury SUV for a meal. He sometimes tells the audience, "That's the good thing about being the candidate. You get to decide when you want to leave."

John McCain, on the other hand, will answer questions until the audience cries uncle. After an hour or more, voters have been known to glance furtively around the room, trying to plot their escapes.

Mitt Romney invites voters to "Ask Mitt Anything," although sometimes their questions annoy him. Recently, when one woman after another challenged him on private accounts for Social Security, he finally shot back, "You're getting down into the weeds. All right?"

Bill Richardson seems like a performer who assumes his audience wants multiple encores. When an aide signals that there is only time for one more question, Richardson routinely protests and insists on taking more.

Hillary Rodham Clinton's town halls, billed as "Organizing for Change," are organized and orderly. John Edwards ticks off quick, tight answers: In New Hampshire this week, he took 11 questions in 34 minutes.

Barack Obama, on the other hand, can give responses that are long-winded or startlingly uninhibited. When a questioner told Obama that inner-city youth must be more presentable in job interviews, he agreed, answering in character: "If you walk in with your pants hanging down, hat crooked, mumbling, 'Uh... eh... bu... eh...,' you can't understand what they're saying. Employer asks them to do something. They got an attitude. 'Why he, why I got to do it? Why didn't you ask Pookie to do it?'... The employer -- they don't want that."

Selecting individual issues
Some participants toss softballs to the candidates in an effort to help them drive home points in their stump speeches or personal stories. Rudy Giuliani is often asked about the war on terror, giving him the chance to chastise Democrats for shying away from the term "Islamic terrorists." Edwards is often asked about poverty, which he describes as "the cause of my life."

When Romney is asked about his Mormon faith, it usually comes from a supporter who invites him to explain how he will sway evangelicals to his side. Voters frequently urge Obama to tell them how he will restore America's reputation in the world, thereby allowing him to discuss his multicultural background and argue that the world will see the U.S. differently -- "literally and figuratively" -- if he becomes its "face."

But for the most part, voters come to pin the candidates down on issues that matter to them. Candidates in both parties have been pressed on their views on a wide range of subjects, especially illegal immigration.

Anecdotally, illegal immigration comes up more often than any other issue -- and a more scientific survey, a [PDF] released in late October, bears out the issue's relevance on the trail. Nearly 90 percent of respondents told pollsters that immigration will be very or somewhat important in their vote for president.

Romney has been asked about rumors that the Bush administration is secretly planning to eliminate the borders between the United States, Canada and Mexico in order to form a new entity called the "the North American Union." He always answers seriously, saying, "No, no, no."

McCain, whose popularity sank after he supported legislation providing a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants, tries to joke whenever someone asks about it and calls out, "This meeting is adjourned!"

Giuliani brings up the subject himself, insisting he would fight illegal immigration with the kind of zeal he once used to fight crime in New York City. One woman demanded to know if he now disavows the Big Apple's so-called "sanctuary city" policies of protecting illegal immigrants; "I'm not disavowing them at all," Giuliani answered firmly. He argued that the rules cut crime and protected public health, and he suggested the woman imagine she had been in his shoes "and see if [she] wouldn't have made the same choices."

Clinton also talks tough on illegal immigration, emphasizing enforcement first. She typically tells voters her focus would be on homeland security, tougher border control and tracking people who may have overstayed their visas, the way three of the 9/11 hijackers did. Toward the end of her answer, she says she supports providing a path to citizenship but stresses that illegal immigrants who have committed crimes will be deported.

Obama also is pressed to talk about illegal immigration at nearly every stop. After a town hall in Iowa this week, he was heard grumbling to one of his aides about how quickly it came up: "First question. First question." Obama promises to strengthen border security but also urges the audience to sympathize with illegal immigrants who come to the U.S. seeking higher wages. He asks, "If the minimum wage in Canada was $100 an hour, how many [Americans] do you think we'd have running for the border?" He pushes back against questioners who compare illegal immigrants to terrorists and calls for a path to citizenship that involves paying a fine and learning English. Even among solidly Democratic crowds, only that last point provokes cheers.

The life of the parties
That Pew poll reveals some differences in the issues that are most important to members of each party. Health care topped the Democrats' list, with 88 percent saying it was very important to their vote; on the GOP side, only 59 percent said the same, but independents were at 77 percent. Twice the number of Democrats as Republicans said the environment ranked high for them, and far more Democrats also wanted to hear about Social Security.

Regardless of party, though, all the candidates get questions about their health care proposals, education, the deficit, global warming and energy independence. Iowans have asked Clinton if she can help them finance wind turbines. (She said yes, the government should support that.) Thompson has been asked a few times whether using more coal is a good idea. (As long as they use "carbon capture technology," he said.) Democrats are asked when and how the U.S. will get out of Iraq; Republicans are asked how to achieve victory and/or build a stronger military.

Democratic and Republican candidates are pressed to talk about how they would diffuse the toxic partisanship in Washington. Romney boasts of his record as the governor of Massachusetts with an "85-percent Democratic legislature." His secrets: "Share credit." "Don't attack them personally." "Find common ground."

Clinton points to her success winning over conservative voters in upstate New York and suggests she picked up pointers from her husband. "He worked all the time with Republicans.... They'd go on cable TV and radio and condemn him during the day and then come to the White House at night and meet with him."

Adventures with advocacy groups
Die-hard advocates representing various causes trail the candidates wherever they go, especially in New Hampshire. None has been more persistent than the members of the Granite Staters for Medical Marijuana, pushing to legalize the drug. Romney dismisses them firmly, arguing medical marijuana is a "pathway to drug use." At a house party in New Hampshire, Giuliani answered that he has talked to his wife, a nurse, and consulted experts at the FDA, who told him there are other, more effective pain relievers.

At a house party a few weeks ago, McCain realized the question was coming -- "Oh my God, here we go again" -- before a student pressed him to clarify his views on medical marijuana. "How could I clarify?" he complained. "I've said it a thousand times! I'm against it." Finally McCain growled that the student was "trying to embarrass me on this issue. Thank you very much."

Obama seemed to be on the fence when asked about medical marijuana last weekend. He noted that his mother died painfully of cancer and said he would consult scientists and doctors about whether marijuana provides uniquely effective pain relief. But he mused that legalizing it as medicine might lead to abuse, such as, "I was feeling really tense, so I needed a joint."

In New Hampshire, the candidates can count on seeing an AARP member who will ask a long question about Social Security. There is usually someone from the Carbon Coalition, which urges its members to ask "carefully-crafted and specific questions about how they would address human-caused global warming."

The One Campaign, a global anti-poverty group funded by U2's Bono and the Gates Foundation, is omnipresent, and one of its volunteers, former Marine Michael Castaldo, shows up to nearly every event clad in his black One t-shirt. He rarely asks questions, but he has managed to have his picture taken with almost every candidate. He now takes a blown-up copy of each photo to events, asking each candidate to sign it.

Linda Douglass compiled this story with information from NBC News/National Journal campaign reporters Adam Aigner-Treworgy, Aswini Anburajan, Matt Berger, Carrie Dann, Athena Jones, Mike Memoli, Erin McPike and Tricia Miller.