Top 7 Wacky Moments of Town Hall Debates

Town hall debates: Anything is possible when there are no podiums.

October 12, 2012, 5:26 PM

Oct. 12, 2012 -- intro: Town hall debates, like the one President Obama and Mitt Romney will face off in this week, are like the Wild, Wild West of presidential debates.

There are no podiums, no carefully crafted questions from seasoned journalists and no restrictions on where the candidates can stand, sit or stroll.

If history is any guide, this free-flowing setup is sure to produce some memorable moments. Here's a look at some of the most awkward, candid and unexpected moments in presidential town hall debate history.

quicklist: 1title: Awkward Mormon Questiontext: Tensions flared during one of Romney's town hall-style campaign events in April when a young audience member asked Romney about specific passages in the Book of Mormon. While Romney is the first major party nominee in history who's Mormon, his religion is rarely brought up on the campaign trail.

"Your Mormon faith might not be a concern in the election, but I think it might be as well, as I found these verses in the Mormon book," 28-year-old Bret Hatch asked at the Wisconsin town hall.

"Why don't you give me a question?" Romney interjected as Hatch shuffled a stack of papers.

"OK, well, in the Mormon book it says ... a blackness came upon all the children of Canaan, that they were despised," Hatch continued.

Romney cut him off, saying, "I'm sorry, we're just not going to have a discussion about religion in my view, but if you have a question, I'll be happy to answer your question."

"I guess my question is, do you believe it's a sin for a white man to marry and procreate with a black?" Hatch asked.

"No," Romney said, turning his back to the questioner before declaring "next question."

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quicklist: 2title: Audience Boos Gay Soldiertext: At a GOP primary debate sponsored by Fox News and Google in September, the Republican audience burst into boos after a video of a gay soldier asking about the recently repealed "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy was played in the debate hall.

"In 2010, when I was deployed to Iraq, I had to lie about who I was, because I'm a gay soldier, and I didn't want to lose my job," soldier Stephen Hill said in a YouTube video played on large projection screens. "My question is, under one of your presidencies, do you intend to circumvent the progress that's been made for gay and lesbian soldiers in the military?"

GOP candidate Rick Santorum ignored the boos and launched into a fiery response about how he would reinstate "Don't Ask Don't Tell." When asked about the booing after the debate, Santorum said he did not hear it.

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quicklist: 3title: The Infamous 'Joe the Plumber' text: Joe the Plumber may be a household name today, but four years ago he was just Joe, a plumber.

It was during an Obama town hall event in Toledo, Ohio, during the 2008 presidential campaign that plumber Samuel Joseph Wurzelbacher was propelled to national recognition after he asked Obama whether his tax plan would raise taxes on small businesses such as his.

"My attitude is that if the economy's good for folks from the bottom up, it's gonna be good for everybody," Obama responded. "If you've got a plumbing business, you're gonna be better off. If you're gonna be better off, if you've got a whole bunch of customers who can afford to hire you, and right now everybody's so pinched that business is bad for everybody, and I think when you spread the wealth around, it's good for everybody."

Obama's GOP rival John McCain seized on the town hall exchange and made "Joe the Plumber" a staple of his campaign speech for the rest of the campaign, bringing Wurzelbacher to campaign events and telling his story as an example of how Obama's tax plan would hurt small businesses.

Watch the exchange here.

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quicklist: 4title: Obama's 'an Arab' Outcrytext: It's not every day that a presidential competitor comes to the defense of his opponent. But when audience members at a 2008 town hall event in Minnesota started calling Democratic candidate Obama an "Arab," a "liar" and a "terrorist" that is exactly what Republican candidate John McCain did.

"I have to tell you, Sen. Obama is a decent person and a person you don't have to be scared of as president of the United States," McCain said after one woman said she would be "scared" if Obama won the White House.

"I can't trust Obama," another McCain supporter said. "I have read about him and he's not, he's not uh, he's an Arab."

That comment prompted McCain to snatch back the microphone and set the record straight.

"No, ma'am," the Republican nominee said. "He's a decent family man, citizen that I just happen to have disagreements with on fundamental issues, and that's what this campaign's all about. He's not [an Arab]."

Watch the exchange here.

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quicklist: 5title: McCain's Debate Stage Strollstext: With no podium to anchor him, Sen. John McCain took to wandering during the 2008 town hall debate against Barack Obama. While Obama stood still and rattled off policy plans, McCain strolled all over the stage.

Late-night comedians had a heyday with the 72-year-old candidate's debate-stage wandering, which his opponents capitalized on to re-enforce the idea that McCain was too old to serve as president.

Watch those debate highlights here.

And see the Daily Show's rendition of McCain's wander here (skip to the 7:30 mark).


quicklist: 6title: Cheney Gets Personal on Gay Marriagetext: Vice President Dick Cheney showed a rare moment of empathy with the gay community during a town hall event in Iowa during the 2004 campaign. When asked about his stand on gay marriage, Cheney said for the first time publicly that his daughter Mary was a lesbian.

"Lynne and I have a gay daughter, so it's an issue our family is very familiar with," Cheney said, as his daughter looked on from the audience. "With the respect to the question of relationships, my general view is freedom means freedom for everyone. ... People ought to be free to enter into any kind of relationship they want to."

Two months later, that kind of candor evaporated during a traditional-style vice presidential debate. When the Democratic nominee John Kerry, responding to a question about homosexuality, said "talk to Dick Cheney's daughter, who is a lesbian."

Cheney's wife criticized the remark as "cheap and tawdry political trick," and the vice president said he was "a pretty angry father" over the comment.


quicklist: 7title: Gore's Attempted Intimidationtext: Vice President Al Gore was not about to sit back and let Gov. George W. Bush's Texas charm win over the audience during a 2000 town hall debate.

When Bush began an impassioned answer on how he would "get something positive done" in Washington, Gore stood up, walked right up to the governor and stared him down. Bush paused, nodded cordially, and concluded "and I believe I can" as the audience burst into laughter.

Watch the awkward incident here (skip to the :30 mark).

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