NEW YORK — Whatever you do, don’t look at your watch.
That’s Rule Number One for presidential candidates in town hall debates, the format to be used Sunday as Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump meet for their second showdown of the fall election season.
The picture of President George H.W. Bush checking his watch during a town hall debate in 1992 — taken as a sign of indifference to the audience of voters in front of him — should be on the minds of both candidates, each of whom face different challenges heading into this session.
“Any time there’s a weak performance in the first debate, the pressure increases for a good performance in the second debate,” said Alan Schroeder, author of Presidential Debates: Risky Business on the Campaign Trail.
While Trump continues to claim victory in his Sept. 26 clash with Clinton — while criticizing the Commission on Presidential Debates over a “defective microphone” — most analysts gave the nod to the Democratic nominee. In the days since that first debate, Trump has seen slippage in his polls, including in key states he likely needs to win to amass the 270 electoral votes necessary to capture the presidency.
The latest debate is scheduled for Sunday at Washington University in St. Louis.
Under the town meeting format, half the questions will be posed by audience members and the other half by co-moderators Martha Raddatz of ABC News and Anderson Cooper of CNN. The audience will be comprised of “uncommitted voters selected by the Gallup Organization,” the debate commission said.
Republican pollster Frank Luntz said the town hall format “is more about persona than policy,” and Trump “needs to empathize and sympathize with the voters and forget that Clinton is standing next to him.”
During their first meeting at Hofstra University in New York, Clinton appeared to score points by knocking Trump for comments he once made about the weight of former Miss Universe Alicia Machado, who said the real estate mogul once called her “Miss Piggy.” Trump spent days after the debate defending his actions, including a pre-dawn tweet storm that allowed critics to question his temperament and even his stability.
Another big job for Trump on Sunday: Don’t let Clinton get under his skin.
“Look and act calm,” advised Jo-Renee Formicola, a political science professor at Seton Hall University in New Jersey. “Be a gentleman. Smile.”
Formicola said Trump should also “personalize” the issues for the voters in front of him: “He needs to come across as the problem solver and wise decision maker.”
In the run-up to Sunday’s debate, Trump and his team have sent mixed signals about how much they plan to attack Clinton’s honesty, and whether he plans to bring up former president Bill Clinton’s history with women.
“I want to win this election on my policies for the future, not on Bill Clinton’s past,” Trump said in an email to Page Six of The New York Post. “Jobs, trade, ending illegal immigration, veteran care, and strengthening our military is what I really want to be talking about.”
Trump — still a campaign novice in many ways, running his first political race — has the ability to recover in round two of the fall debates, analysts said.
“He’s proven to be a quick study during the campaign and reports of Trump’s debate obituary could be greatly exaggerated,” said Aaron Kall, director of debate at the University of Michigan.
Kall noted that President Obama got negative reviews after his first debate against Mitt Romney in 2012, then rallied in a town hall debate with his challenger — inspired in part by a well-received debate performance by Vice President Biden. Trump aides said Mike Pence’s performance in the vice presidential debate this week should energize the New York businessman.
The town hall format is a “wild card” for Trump, Kall said: “Success requires making an authentic connection with the questioner and appearing relatable to the average voter.”
Ultimately, it’s hard for any candidate to score clear wins in these debates, especially when an experienced participant like Clinton is involved.
Republican strategist Rich Galen said that, given his current poll position against Clinton, Trump needs at least a draw on Sunday.
“If he doesn’t come out with generally a tie,” Galen said, “then I think this baby is over.”