It's easy to see why town meeting is back ON POLITICS

JACK GERMOND& JULES WITCOVER

February 05, 1993|By JACK GERMOND & JULES WITCOVER

WASHINGTON -- It should come as no surprise to anyone who followed the 1992 presidential campaign at all that President Clinton will be resuming his town-meeting romance with the voters next week.

The decision to go to Detroit next Wednesday for a televised question-and-answer session with voters there and, by satellite hookup, in Atlanta, Miami and Seattle is simply playing to a strength that served him exceptionally well as a presidential candidate.

When candidate Clinton was in serious political trouble during the New Hampshire Democratic primary over allegations of womanizing and draft evasion, he bypassed the carping press and went directly to the voters in the town-meeting format.

His strategists later credited the device with playing a key role in his second-place finish in that primary to former Sen. Paul Tsongas, enabling him to proclaim himself on primary night as "The Comeback Kid," which he indeed proved to be.

Thereafter, Clinton used the town meeting again in most key primary states, linking cities and towns around the state in California and elsewhere by satellite hookup and fielding questions from voters who saw him, as he saw them, on a television screen.

Clinton had always performed well in face-to-face sessions with the public, but in the 1992 campaign he had the added incentive of the opportunity the format gave him to cut through the news media "feeding frenzy" that attended the personal allegations against him. He often complained that he couldn't get his message of economic recovery through in the traditional fashion of holding news conferences and otherwise talking to the press.

The town-meeting format really paid off for Clinton in his second presidential debate with George Bush and Ross Perot at the University of Richmond in mid-October. Clinton himself proposed the format and his debate negotiators were astonished that the Bush strategists agreed to it.

The Clinton side reminded the Bush negotiators that their man had considerable experience with the format in "Ask George Bush" sessions he had held as far back as his first presidential bid in 1980.

Bush's conviction that the press was out to get him -- remember those "Annoy the Media, Re-elect Bush" bumper stickers? -- was considered a factor by the Clinton negotiators in his willingness to accept the town-meeting format.

The decision proved to be an enormous boost for Clinton (and for Perot) at Bush's expense. First, two questioners in the audience called on the candidates to stop trashing each other on personal matters. It was a demand that stopped Bush cold in his tracks as he was just getting warmed up on the subject of Clinton's protests against the Vietnam War while he was a student in England in 1969.

Next, another questioner asked Bush how the "deficit" -- the moderator, ABC News' Carole Simpson, helped her clarify that she meant "recession" -- affected him personally. Bush stammered, first that he didn't "get" the question, then answered that it made him worry how his grandchildren would be educated -- a ludicrous response from a wealthy man.

Bush was wounded by this performance, and Clinton made it worse when he left the high stool on which he had been leaning and stepped toward the questioner, telling how he understood the pain the recession had brought to his Arkansas neighbors. The whole exchange was among the most memorable of the campaign.

In the final debate, when Bush began to raise personal issues against Clinton again, Clinton pointedly reminded him of what those two voters had said at the Richmond debate. That reminder again cramped Bush's style.

There was great skepticism in the news media before the Richmond debate about using the town-meeting approach, on grounds average voters would ask softball questions. But that wasn't the case in that instance.

Clinton, with the favorable experience he has had, is likely to make the town meeting a regular part of his communications agenda. That is, unless the questions get too tough or create an unforeseen controversy. To date, though, the town meeting has been his very good friend.

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