The 90-minute town-hall debate at Hofstra University on Tuesday night will feature questions from uncommitted Nassau County, N.Y., voters selected by Gallup. Moderator Candy Crowley is tasked with selecting which of the 80 voters' questions will be asked and following up after candidates’ two-minute responses. Both domestic and foreign issues are fair game.
ECONOMY: The town-hall structure will likely yield economic questions shaped by personal anecdotes – a question about employment, for instance, from a laid-off worker, or a question about day-to-day obstacles for the middle class, such as rising gas and food prices. Republican Mitt Romney could be asked whether he supports extending unemployment benefits, set to expire at the end of the year, and how he proposes to keep energy prices in check. He may also be probed on his views on outsourcing, given his support of free trade, his record at Bain Capital, and the issue’s resonance with the unemployed. President Obama, meanwhile, could face a broader question about his economic record and plan; he has routinely emphasized that voters need to look at the next four years, rather than the past four, while simultaneously endorsing a “stay-the-course” economic strategy going forward.
TAXES: Taxes have taken on a major role in this year’s campaign: Obama supports higher taxes on the wealthy, while Romney is promising to cut tax rates without adding to the deficit in a mathematically difficult plan that has drawn significant scrutiny. Obama will likely try to highlight what his campaign has portrayed as an outright lie by Romney in the first debate, when the GOP challenger said he does not want to cut taxes by $5 trillion, a widely cited figure drawn from the Tax Policy Center’s analysis of his plan. Romney may be asked whether deficit reduction or tax-rate reduction is the more important priority in his plan, and how he envisions tax reform fostering economic growth in the short term. And Obama could face a question on the importance he gives to raising taxes on the top 2 percent – in light of those rates’ modest impact on deficit reduction, why allow taxes to go up now, a potential economic drag, when events in Europe and the Middle East continue to threaten the shaky recovery? He may also be asked about his choice of wording in calling on wealthy taxpayers, who pay an outsized proportion of federal taxes, to pay their “fair share.”
GAY MARRIAGE: Social issues have taken a backseat in the debates so far, but the town-hall format raises the likelihood that voters will be able to confront or probe a candidate on his views of their rights and choices. Obama endorsed gay marriage earlier this year; he could be asked why, given his statement that same-sex marriage is a matter of civil rights, he is leaving its legality up to states rather than more forcefully pushing to overturn the Defense of Marriage Act. Romney, meanwhile, could be questioned on his support for a constitutional amendment defining marriage as between a man and a woman and whether that undermines his support for civil unions and domestic-partnership rights.
REPRODUCTIVE RIGHTS: The Obama campaign has made the “war on women” an effective meme, frequently accusing Romney of wishing to roll back abortion rights and restrict access to contraception. Although Obama has not signed any legislation that allows federal funds to be used for abortions, his health reform law requires insurers to offer contraception to women with no co-payments—and set off a fight with the Catholic Church earlier this year. Romney has danced around the issue a bit, saying he would support “personhood” amendments that would abolish all abortion rights and potentially outlaw some contraception methods, saying that he supports abortion for the victims of rape or incest, and telling The Des Moines Register last week, “There’s no legislation with regards to abortion that I’m familiar with that would become part of my agenda.” Both candidates could be asked about the appropriate limits on government involvement in reproductive matters.
HEALTH INSURANCE PREMIUMS: Since 2002, employers' health insurance premiums have nearly doubled, effectively erasing wage gains and leading many employers to drop coverage. Obama campaigned last cycle on the promise that his health reform law would lower premiums by $2,500—it hasn’t. Romney’s health reform proposals are not forecast to create big reductions in premiums either. Each candidate should be able to explain how he can reduce the steady upward march of health care costs.
MEDICARE COSTS: Seniors pay for Medicare in several ways—through premiums, deductibles, co-payments, and out-of-pocket costs for services not covered by the program. Obama has blasted Romney’s proposed Medicare reform for shifting more premium costs to seniors; a new study from the nonpartisan Kaiser Family foundation predicts that more than half of all seniors would have to pay more to stay on their current plan when and if Romney’s proposal goes into effect. But Romney contends that seniors’ premiums will not go up and that his plan will better protect the benefits of future generations. Obama’s health reform law reduced co-payments for preventive services and increased government subsidies for prescription drugs. Because Romney wants to repeal the law, he could be asked whether he would reverse these bonuses.
ROLE OF GOVERNMENT IN HEALTH CARE: Republicans have pilloried Obama’s 2010 health reform law as a federal power grab. And, indeed, the law vastly expands federal regulation of health insurance markets, shifts control to set much of Medicare’s policy to the executive branch, and (almost) standardizes state Medicaid eligibility standards. Obama says his plan simply builds on the existing private health insurance system and closes gaps that were causing people to lose coverage. Romney says a federal approach to health care is an inappropriate use of power and that states can do it better. Expect contrasting visions of the correct role of government in health care.
LIBYA ATTACK: The deadly assault on the U.S. diplomatic mission in Benghazi was a hot topic at last week’s vice presidential debate. Romney, like his running mate Paul Ryan, is likely to accuse the Obama administration of misleading the public by initially saying the attack that killed Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans was a spontaneous outbreak of violence amid protests over an anti-Muslim film, rather than a coordinated act of terrorism. You can expect Obama to fire back by pointing out that House Republicans slashed millions of dollars from his budget request for embassy security. Obama is also likely to insist that the administration’s assessment of the attack evolved days and even weeks after the assault—and how he has pledged to bring the perpetrators of the attack to justice.
DEFENSE CUTS: Romney has decried “President Obama’s defense cuts” that could cost tens of thousands of jobs. It's a flawed argument, because both parties agreed to the debt deal last August that would trigger $1.2 trillion in spending cuts—half from defense—if Congress fails to reach agreement on deficit reduction. Romney has also said he would roll back the first tranche of $500 billion in cuts the military has already said it could safely absorb. Obama is likely to insist that Romney’s plans would give the military $2 trillion it does not want or need, and that any deficit reduction must not unduly slash social programs simply to spare the military budget.
IRAN: Iran could come up again this week after the vice presidential debate brought heated sparring over the Obama administration’s efforts to derail Tehran’s nuclear program. Romney will be likely to criticize Obama for failing to stop Tehran’s enrichment program despite sanctions and attempts to negotiate. Obama is likely to insist that he has taken no option off the table when it comes to preventing Iran from getting a bomb and that he has put in place the more comprehensive raft of sanctions to date--and to question whether Romney’s hawkish rhetoric constitutes loose talk of war.
IMMIGRATION: Immigration has had a low profile in the debates so far, raising the probability that the issue will be aired on Tuesday night. Obama has been clear that he’d like to tackle immigration reform in a second term, while Romney has been vaguer. Both may be asked about their policy visions. Already, the Obama administration has launched an executive version of a Dream Act program, allowing some young undocumented immigrants who came to the country as children to avoid deportation. Romney has said that he wouldn’t revoke their visas, but he has generally taken a hard line on immigration policy. Both candidates could be called upon to explain their plans for the 12 million undocumented immigrants living in the United States.
PIZZA TOPPINGS: There’s a chance that a voter may ask the candidates about their favorite pizza toppings--Pizza Hut has pledged free pizza for life to the audience member who does.