It depends what you mean by ‘town hall’

IT DEPENDS WHAT YOU MEAN BY ‘TOWN HALL’…. Looking over the guidelines of tonight’s presidential debate — ostensibly, the “town-hall-style” event — the agreed upon rules aren’t encouraging.

* The questions will be culled from a group of 100 to 150 uncommitted likely voters in the audience and another one-third to come via the Internet. Brokaw selects which questions to ask from written queries submitted prior to the debate.

* The Gallup Organization makes sure the questioners reflect the demographic makeup of the nation.

* An audience member isn’t allowed to switch questions and will not be allowed a follow-up either. His or her microphone will be turned off after the question is read and a camera shot will only be shown of the person asking — not reacting.

* The moderator may not ask follow-ups or make comments.

* McCain and Obama will be provided with director’s chairs, but they’re also allowed to stand. They can’t roam past their “designated area” marked on the stage and are not supposed to ask each other direct questions.

Well, that sounds … rather dull and unhelpful. In a traditional town-hall forum, the public asks whatever they want. Tonight, Brokaw will consider what the voters want to know, and then pick the questions he thinks are best.

For what it’s worth, the two campaigns agreed to the “no follow-up” rule, but as Ben Smith noted, “Brokaw wasn’t a party to the deal, I’m told, and hasn’t agreed to it, so the campaigns are expecting follow-up questions, a senior campaign official said.”

The Biden-Palin debate suffered under the “no follow-up” rule, so here’s hoping Brokaw has the good sense to press the candidates a bit.

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Steve Benen

Steve Benen is a producer at MSNBC's The Rachel Maddow Show. He was the principal contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal blog from August 2008 until January 2012.