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In 24 Years of Town Hall Debates, The Winners, The Losers, And The Weird

In the 24 years since the debut of the town-hall format in an American presidential debate, there have been winners, losers and some memorably weird moments.

Sunday’s debate at Washington University in St. Louis, to be moderated by CNN’s Anderson Cooper, is the second of three presidential debates in this election cycle and the only town hall debate — which features the candidates in a more informal setting fielding questions from undecided voters.

The debate pits two candidates headed in opposite directions. Republican nominee Donald Trump had a rough first debate on Sept. 26 and a series of controversies and gaffes since then has diminished his odds of winning the election: on the FiveThirtyEight.com election website, his estimated chances have fallen from 45.2 percent to 18.6 percent. After Friday’s release of a tape that captured Trump’s lewd remarks about women in 2005, the 70 year-old businessman will need a stellar debate to stop the political bleeding. Hillary Clinton will need a steady debate performance to maintain her lead.

What follows is a glance at the winners, losers, and weird moments at previous presidential election town hall debates:

2012 Hofstra University, Hempstead, NY, moderated by CNN’s Candy Crowley

In the first debate, President Barack Obama seemed tired and withdrawn, which let challenger Mitt Romney come away in polls as the winner. Obama, however, stepped up his game in this second encounter. And Romney’s comment about having “binders full of women” when asked about finding qualified women to serve in his administration, if elected, was the line everybody remembered weeks later.

2008 Belmont University, Nashville, TN, moderated by NBC’s Tom Brokaw

Democratic nominee Obama came into this second debate after a strong showing in the first debate and maintained his momentum with another solid outing. Republican John McCain created a stir when he referred to Obama as “that one” at one point and also created a buzz with what appeared to be absent-minded wandering around the stage while Obama spoke.

2004 St. Louis University, St. Louis, MO, moderated by ABC’s Charles Gibson

President George W. Bush had been criticized for too much scowling in the first debate, and softened his appearance in this second debate. Bush and Democrat John Kerry came into the event even in the polls and exited the same way. This debate featured some contentious back-and-forth over the “weapons of mass destruction” not found in Iraq.

2000 St. Louis University, St. Louis, MO, moderated by PBS’s Jim Lehrer

This debate was nearly postponed after the death of Missouri Governor Mel Carnahan and his son Randy the day before in a plane crash. Democrat Al Gore had endured withering criticism after the first debate for sighing too much when Republican Bush spoke. In this debate, seen as a draw by many, Gore created a stir by walking into Bush’s personal space while he was answering a question.

1996 University of San Diego, San Diego, CA, moderated by PBS’s Jim Lehrer

Republican Bob Dole needed a boost after a rough outing in the first debate, but couldn’t gain any traction on incumbent Bill Clinton’s double digit lead in the polls. Voters remembered Clinton’s line that “defended” Dole as not too old to run for president at age 73, while criticizing his ideas as outdated. There were only two debates in 1996 instead of the normal three.

1992 University of Richmond, Richmond, VA, moderated by ABC’s Carole Simpson

Would you believe the first presidential debate this year wasn’t won by a Democrat or Republican but by an Independent candidate —  as Ross Perot shone against incumbent George H.W. Bush and challenger Bill Clinton in the new town hall format. Bush suffered the very first “gotcha” moment when cameras caught him looking at his watch while a voter was asking a question. He failed to make a move in this debate to shake things up.

IMAGE: In this Oct. 16, 2012, file photo, Republican presidential candidate, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney speaks while President Barack Obama listens during the second presidential debate at Hofstra University in Hempstead, N.Y. (AP Photo/David Goldman, File)

Trump Flops On Immigration (Again), After Inviting Brexiter Nigel Farage On Stage

JACKSON, Miss. (Reuters) – Nigel Farage, a key figure in the successful campaign to get Britain out of the European Union, lent his support to Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump on Wednesday, saying Trump represented the same type of anti-establishment movement that he masterminded in his own country.

Farage appeared with Trump before a cheering crowd of thousands at a rally in Jackson, Mississippi. Farage partly based his Brexit drive on opposition to mass immigration to Britain that he said was leading to rapid change in his country.

His appearance came as Trump sought to moderate his own hardline stance against illegal immigration. In remarks broadcast on Wednesday, Trump backed further away from his vow to deport millions of illegal immigrants, saying he would be willing to work with those who have abided by U.S. laws while living in the country.

Trump summoned Farage on stage in the middle of his appearance, shook his hand and surrendered the microphone to him.

Farage said he would not actually endorse Trump because he did not want to repeat what he called President Barack Obama’s meddling in British affairs when Obama urged Britons to vote to stay in the EU.

“I cannot possibly tell you how you should vote in this election. But you know I get it, I get it. I’m hearing you. But I will say this, if I was an American citizen I wouldn’t vote for Hillary Clinton if you paid me,” Farage said.

“In fact, I wouldn’t vote for Hillary Clinton if she paid me,” he added.

Trump has sought to align himself with the Brexit movement, noting he had said before the June 23 referendum that Britons should vote to leave. He visited one of his golf courses in Scotland the day after the vote and boasted that he had predicted the outcome and called it a sign his own campaign would be successful.

Trump has since tumbled in national opinion polls and is fighting to remain competitive with Democratic rival Clinton with little more than two months to go until the Nov. 8 election.

“November 8 is our chance to redeclare American independence,” Trump said, borrowing a phrase Farage used during the Brexit campaign.

‘FANTASTIC OPPORTUNITY’

Farage drew parallels between the Brexit movement and the support Trump has received from many Americans who feel left behind by Washington.

“They feel people aren’t standing up for them and they have in many cases given up on the whole electoral process and I think you have a fantastic opportunity here with this campaign,” he said.

Trump’s comments on immigration came in the second part of an interview conducted on Tuesday with Fox News anchor Sean Hannity. They signaled a further softening in his immigration position as he tries to bolster support among moderate voters and minority groups.

Trump, who defeated 16 rivals for the Republican presidential nomination in part based on his opposition to illegal immigrants, said he would not permit American citizenship for the undocumented population and would expel lawbreakers.

To qualify to remain in the United States, Trump said, illegal immigrants would have to pay back taxes.

“No citizenship. Let me go a step further – they’ll pay back taxes, they have to pay taxes, there’s no amnesty, as such, there’s no amnesty, but we work with them,” Trump said.

“But when I go through and I meet thousands and thousands of people on this subject, and I’ve had very strong people come up to me … and they’ve said: ‘Mr. Trump, I love you, but to take a person who’s been here for 15 or 20 years and throw them and their family out, it’s so tough, Mr. Trump,'” Trump said. “It’s a very hard thing.”

Trump said he would outline his position soon.

“Well, I’m going to announce something over the next two weeks, but it’s going to be a very firm policy,” Trump told WPEC, a CBS affiliate in West Palm Beach, Florida.

Trump’s new position seemed to resemble in some respects the failed 2007 reform push by former Republican President George W. Bush. That effort offered a way to bring millions “out of the shadows” without amnesty and would have required illegal immigrants to pay a fine and take other steps to gain legal status.

(Reporting by Steve Holland; Editing by Peter Cooney)

Photo: Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump (L) shakes hands with Member of the European Parliament Nigel Farage at a campaign rally in Jackson, Mississippi, U.S., August 24, 2016.   REUTERS/Carlo Allegri

Christie Is Confronted At Town Hall Event Over Bridge Scandal

By Melissa Hayes and Karen Sudol, The Record (Hackensack, NJ)

HACKENSACK, NJ — New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie is back to the town hall events that helped create his image as a straight-talking, tough-walking politician not afraid to mix it up with the people who elected him.

But now, nearly three months into the biggest scandal of Christie’s political career, these carefully staged and tightly controlled events have been marked by protests and tainted by claims of police intimidation.

And on Thursday in Flemington, Christie faced a first: a direct question from the audience about the George Washington Bridge controversy itself.

Fred Kanter of Mountain Lakes took the microphone and after a few jokes with Christie asked the governor to explain himself about why he fired the aide who wrote that “Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee” email at the heart of the scandal.

Kanter, a Democrat, took issue with Christie’s January statement that Bridget Anne Kelly was fired because she lied to him. Kanter, facing Christie in a room full of about 400 people, called that “a very self-centered reason for firing somebody” and said Kelly should have been let go for her involvement in the lane closures.

It was a question that provoked Christie’s longest statement on Kelly’s behavior since he fired her, and it came after the governor had boasted that residents were not concerned about the closures because they weren’t raising the issue with him at events.

“Let me be really clear — and I thought I was really clear that day — that what happened in that circumstance is unacceptable, not approved by me, would never be approved by me and the folks who were involved in that absolutely would have lost their jobs, whether they told the truth or lied about it,” Christie said.

But the governor wouldn’t go as far as to say Kelly, of Ramsey, had broken any laws, noting that prosecutors are looking into the matter so it would be inappropriate for him to comment.

Christie was matter-of-fact in his response. He was animated, talking with his hands as he often does, but he didn’t raise his voice as he’s done when confronted by critics. The governor called the access lane closures, which tied up traffic in Fort Lee for four days, “wrong and abusive and unacceptable.” A state legislative panel and the U.S. Attorney’s Office are investigating the closures.

After the event Kanter said he didn’t think Christie sufficiently answered his question.

“I think he’s very, very skillful — of course, that’s why he’s governor — and he danced around the question I asked,” Kanter said.

Kanter’s question was the latest to put Christie on the defensive.

In recent weeks the Republican governor has found himself defending his administration’s use of Superstorm Sandy aid and explaining why protesters have attended his town hall events — he blames the Communications Workers of America, the largest union representing public employees.

Thursday’s event came as the Attorney General’s Office confirmed it was investigating why a state police officer had taken photographs of protesters at Christie’s South River event on Tuesday, something that was first reported by PolitickerNJ.com. On Wednesday, acting Attorney General John J. Hoffman ordered state police to stop taking photographs of the demonstrators at the public events.

The state police have also increased security at the events, using wands to scan attendees and checking their bags before they can enter. A state police spokesman said it was unrelated to the protests and something that had been long planned, as hundreds of people attend the events.

There were demonstrators there Thursday, but unlike events in Mount Laurel and South River, where protesters shouted out questions at the governor, they took a different approach.

Eleven people sitting in a row, each wearing homemade T-shirts that together spelled out “Bridgegate?” stood up quietly raising their hands each time Christie called on members of the audience to ask him a question. The governor never called on any one from the group, all members of New Jersey Citizen Action, a liberal advocacy organization.

Ann Vardeman, who was wearing one of the shirts, said the group had hoped to ask the governor whether there had ever been a traffic study performed by the Port Authority — the reason Christie’s appointees at the agency had given for the lane closures last year.

“We followed the rules, we didn’t disrupt anything, we were really trying to be respectful and get our question asked,” she said. “This is a question that a lot of people have and the citizens of New Jersey and every single person on that bridge deserves an answer.”

When asked if the group was intimidated by the increased security measures, Vardeman said, “We don’t have anything to hide, we don’t have anything to be scared of. We’re not doing anything wrong.” She added that Citizen Action was “appalled” at the state police for photographing protesters at the last event.

Christie had a number of supporters in the event, and many said they didn’t mind the increased security.

“I think with the most recent town hall meetings with the people coming in and causing trouble they’ve increased it, and I had no problem being wanded, and I think if you have a problem being wanded then you shouldn’t be here,” said Barbara Moritz of Flemington.

Photo: Gage Skidmore via Flickr

Town Hall Protests Are The Work Of Major Union, Christie Says

By Melissa Hayes, The Record (Hackensack, N.J.)

TRENTON, NJ—New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie blamed the state’s largest public employees union for orchestrating interruptions at his public events — and that was before he was confronted by a group of Rutgers University students.

Christie called the unions “special interests who have polluted Trenton all these years.” Then, after predicting outbursts, Christie asked the 400 attendees gathered in South River to wait until any shouting was over to ask their questions.

The governor was in the Middlesex County community hit hard by Superstorm Sandy to promote the state’s purchasing of flood-prone homes and talk about efforts to rebuild the state 16 months after the devastating storm.

Christie has been holding storm recovery and budget promotion events across the state in recent weeks. He’s using the events to try to bolster his image while state and federal investigators look into his administration’s involvement in lane closures at the George Washington Bridge. His next event is set for Flemington on Thursday, following a trip today to Michigan, where he is to raise money for the Republican Governors Association, which he heads.

At Tuesday’s meeting Christie attacked the Communications Workers of America, blaming the public employee union for the protesters at his Mount Laurel event last week. Six Rowan University students affiliated with the union-backed New Jersey Working Families Alliance had been escorted out for shouting over questions from people Christie called on.

But the Rutgers students leading Tuesday’s protest said they weren’t affiliated with the union. They wanted to bring attention to the $4.8 million in federal Sandy aid going to the developer of a 240-unit high-rise in New Brunswick, in exchange for providing 48 affordable units.

“It’s a diversion tactic to discredit the union so that the general populace doesn’t look at the governor,” said David Bedford, secretary of the Rutgers Student Union.

Seth Hahn, CWA New Jersey’s legislative and political director, called the governor’s remarks insulting and said Christie should answer the questions about Sandy aid and the lane closures.

As with the Mount Laurel event, attendees were required to pass through a state police security check. State police Capt. Stephen Jones said the security measures were not related to protests or a specific incident, but were in place because the events have grown in popularity and the state wants to ensure attendees’ safety.

One union member who got caught up in the demonstration was Carol Gay, the president of the New Jersey State Industrial Union Council — a federation of public and private unions.

Gay said she didn’t know the students and was there to call for David Samson, the Christie-appointed chairman of the Port Authority board, to resign for participating in board votes that benefited himself or his law firm’s clients.

Tuesday’s event was packed with Sandy victims like Andrew Horezga of South Amboy, who told the governor he is concerned that the state’s Reconstruction, Rehabilitation, Elevation and Mitigation Grant requires homeowners to place insurance funds in escrow before receiving the federal aid.

Christie said that’s a federal requirement and anyone receiving the grant — up to $150,000 to help residents rebuild — must agree to it.

Horezga said his family is now finalizing paperwork in hopes of receiving funds soon.

“As a Sandy victim, I’m going to say that at the end of the day, until it’s signed, sealed and delivered and I can invite the governor over for dinner, I really don’t have any fundamental trust or faith,” he said.

Other storm victims said they were at the event because the state helped them relocate after the storm.

“I was going to thank him, his team,” said Theresa Iacouzzi-Mills of Sayreville. “You know how they say it takes a village to raise a child? Well, it took a village to get me together.”

AFP Photo/Jim Watson