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SEVERAL OF the candidates' answers in Wednesday night's presidential debate may have been lifted straight from stump speeches that voters have heard before, or from answers they heard during the first debate more than a week ago.

Several of the "answers" were not answers at all, having little to do with the questions asked by members of the audience.

But the 90-minute encounter with a randomly selected group of uncommitted voters asking their own questions was instructive, nonetheless.

For one thing, the format gave not only President Clinton and Bob Dole, but candidates around the country a good idea of what's on voters' minds.

Voters are concerned about the issues that affect their own lives. That was clear in questions that focused primarily on things like health care, the economy, affirmative action, education and how to bring this country together.

Notably absent were inquiries about Clinton's so-called "character" problems.

The audience's lack of interest made Dole's motives especially transparent when he turned the very first question -- about how to bring Americans together -- into an excuse to talk about the FBI file fiasco in the Clinton White House. It was a pattern the Republican challenger repeated throughout the evening.

The attacks themselves were nothing new. But Dole's heavy-handed manner of mounting them and his apparent willingness to ignore what the voters thought was important were revealing and prompt another question.

Was Dole demonstrating leadership by trying to get the public to see the importance of something it deems a low priority? Or was he simply demonstrating how out of touch he is as a Washington insider pressing a political issue not relevant to most voters' daily lives?

Whatever the answer, that question is an important one. And it's one that could only spring to mind when watching the candidates in this format, in which voters replaced journalists in deciding what to ask.

That's not to say the "town hall" setup is perfect. Watching the candidates interact with ordinary citizens who are not there just to cheer for them does provide a glimpse of their leadership style not provided in sessions with journalists or at campaign rallies.

But the format's glaring deficiency is that it doesn't allow for sustained give-and-take on a key issue. Several times during the first debate, under a more conventional format, moderator Jim Lehrer used one candidate's answer as the lead-in to the next question, giving voters a more in-depth look at a particular issue.

That follow-up was missing Wednesday night. The result was a more scatter-shot approach in which topics like foreign policy were almost totally neglected and in which the candidates found it easier to dodge questions while returning again and again to favored themes.

But those themes also are important gauges of who the candidates are, and the two debates taken together certainly provided sufficient profiles of Dole and Clinton.

If each format has its weaknesses, that is no reason to despair because there is no reason to choose one over the other. In 1992 and again this year, voters have benefited from debates that used both.

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