At 2000 Town Hall Debate, Questions Leaned Liberal

By Robert B. Bluey | July 7, 2008 | 8:05 PM EDT

St. Louis ( - The people asking questions at Friday night's town hall debate are not supposed to show a strong preference for President Bush or Sen. John Kerry. But after liberal questions dominated the same type of debate in 2000, a conservative media watchdog warned the same might be true again.

ABC's Charles Gibson, host of "Good Morning America," was chosen to moderate the second presidential debate at Washington University in St. Louis. As moderator, Gibson won't get to ask any questions, but he will decide what questions the audience asks.

In 2000, when Bush debated Democrat Al Gore, Jim Lehrer of the PBS program "NewsHour" played the same role. But as the conservative Media Research Center noted Thursday, most of those questions had a liberal slant. The MRC, parent of, also criticized some of Gibson's liberal policy positions.

The so-called "uncommitted" voters chosen by the Gallup Organization to be featured in tonight's debate have either a slight preference toward Bush or Kerry, but according to the debate rules, Gibson must choose an equal number of questions from each side.

Questions from the 2000 town hall debate included topics such as nationalized health care, gun control and affirmative action. In a report following that debate, the MRC's Tim Graham concluded that eight of the 15 questions leaned left. Here is a sampling:

* "Would you be open to the idea of a national health care plan for everybody? And if not, why? If so, is it something you would try to implement if you're elected into office? And what would you do implement this plan?"

* "We'd like to know why you object to the Brady handgun bill, if you do object to it. Because in a recent TV ad, it showed that the National Rifle Association says if you are elected that they will be working out of your office.... actually that kind of bothers me, you know, when I see that ad like that. I wonder if you could explain that ad to me?"

* "How will your administration address diversity, inclusiveness? And what role will affirmative action play in your overall plan?"

Only two questions came from a conservative perspective, Graham noted. One questioner asked about an overcommitted military and another wondered what could be done about Hollywood entertainment.

But not all political observers agreed with the assessments that Bush had it tougher than Gore in 2000.

"The bias is in the eye of the beholder," said Robert Salisbury, a professor emeritus at Washington University, whose school has hosted the past two town hall debates.

Even conservative professor Richard J. Hardy, who teaches politics at the University of Missouri, said Gallup probably did its best when choosing among the "uncommitted" voters. He said he could only hope the questions would be balanced.

As an incumbent, Bush might even be at a bigger disadvantage now compared to four years ago, said Marvin L. Overby, a University of Missouri politics professor. He noted Bush's preference to interact with friendly audiences at campaign events and avoid formal press conferences.

"The president may not be as adept at this as he was four years ago," Overby said. "He may have lost some of that ability to take a hostile question, turn on the charm and turn the question around and lead the questioner to see things your way."

E-mail a news tip to Robert B. Bluey.

Send a Letter to the Editor about this article.