RICHMOND, Va. - At the outset of a televised "town meeting" debate here the other night between Democrat Mary Sue Terry and Republican George Allen, rival gubernatorial candidates, Terry stepped down from a platform on which two stools rested and began to address the studio audience directly. Allen followed suit.
It was reminiscent of another debate in Richmond just a year earlier, among presidential candidates George Bush, Bill Clinton and Ross Perot, wherein Clinton similarly broke with the stilted format and went directly to the audience to make more personal contact. In a bit more deja vu, one of the voters who rose to ask a question the other night was a man with a ponytail, similar to the gent at the presidential debate who demanded that the candidates "focus on the issues and not the personalities and the mud."
The copycat aspect of the Terry-Allen debate underscored how politicians have learned from last year's key presidential debate the value of establishing more direct contact with voters and conveying an impression of wanting to engage them more personally about their concerns. A year ago, when Clinton stepped out toward his audience as Bush sat glued to his stool, the incident was widely regarded as a telling moment against Bush, confirming a politically damaging disconnect with average voters.
In that presidential debate, three Richmond-area undecided voters asked questions that together may have buried Bush's waning chances for re-election. Today, they recall their unique roles and have some interesting observations on what has happened in the country since then.
Kim Usry, then an unemployed 28-year-old traffic-control marketing director who complained about "the amount of time the candidates have spent in this campaign trashing their opponents' character and programs," asked why they couldn't be more constructive. Unsatisfied by the responses of Bush and Clinton, she ended up voting for Perot.
Now, struggling to start her own monthly suburban magazine, Usry says Clinton "is doing the best he can with all the international stuff going on. . . . I really strongly believe we should stay out of other countries' problems." She says she is "going to give him some more time. Ask me four years from now."
At the same time, however, she says, "I still believe that Perot would be interesting in office . . . . Almost like throwing up the deck and letting them fall back and see how they land, because I think this country is in trouble." She says she'd like to see Perot run again, as an independent.
The man with the ponytail who a year ago pleaded for the candidates "to meet our needs, and we have many, and not yours again," juvenile court mediator Denton Walthall, voted for Clinton and says he is not disappointed. "I think he's taken the bull by the horns on a number of issues. Maybe at times he's taken on more than he should have, but I still like the approach where he's kind of stuck his neck out and been willing to take a stab at something that maybe hasn't been dealt with so directly."
The third questioner, Marisa Hall, a 26-year-old drafting engineer who asked how the national debt personally affected the candidates -- a question that confused Bush -- also voted for Clinton. She says now that "President Clinton is having a difficult time adjusting from Arkansas politics to Capitol Hill politics. They're probably two totally different things. I think Capitol Hill politics plays more hardball, and I don't think he was quite ready for that." Clinton, she says, "kind of got bombarded, and that caused him to get wishy-washy. I think if he had stuck to what he believed in, instead of trying to appease everybody on Capitol Hill, things would have gone a little bit better."
Hall says that if another candidate is addressing the issues of concern to her three years from now, she might vote for him, but meanwhile she too wants to give Clinton some more time.
A year ago, these three voters spoke what was on the minds of millions of Americans. Clinton can only hope, in their positive comments and willingness to withhold final judgment on his presidency, that they again reflect the mood of the country.