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'Town Hall' Meeting Format a Bedrock of American Democracy  - 2004-10-08

President Bush and Democratic Party contender John Kerry take up domestic issues during their second debate on Friday, October 8. This debate is modeled after the traditional town meeting, a bedrock of American democracy.

The first formal debate between President George W. Bush and the Democratic Party's presidential contender John Kerry was moderated by newsman Jim Lehrer, who came up with all the questions posed during the debate. The two contenders stood behind lecterns and did not engage each other in conversation.

In contrast, Friday's debate between the two men is what is known as a town hall meeting. Town hall meetings became an institution in New England before the revolutionary war, and in some towns they continue today.

Citizens meet at the town's hall to debate issues and to make decisions that affect their community. Professor Louis Wolfson says what's called the "town hall style" of presidential debate is really more like a press conference, but he says it's valuable nonetheless.

"The thing that's singular about this format is that it brings the public, in effect, into the debate," he says. "And, I think it makes the people who are watching feel, 'well, I would have asked this,' or 'I would have asked that,' but at least it feels like the citizens themselves are able to ask the questions that are on their minds that are closest to their lives."

Presidential debates are not true town meetings - usually the questions are pre-approved and the citizens are pre-selected. However, they let the American public see the candidates in action and see how they think on their feet. And that can help the citizens decide whom to vote for.

Professor Wolfson says some politicians have used the format to communicate with voters even when they're not running for office. He says former President Bill Clinton held several town hall meetings to explain policies and hear peoples' concerns.