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.