SANDOWN, N.H. — It had all the hallmarks of a warmup session for Sunday’s presidential debate: a countdown clock on the floor, a room full of voters, eager to ask questions, advisers watching from the wings, and a moderator on stage.
But Donald Trump’s event here Thursday night was more of a friendly rally filled with softball questions than a serious proving ground for Sunday’s high-pressure town-hall-style debate with Hillary Clinton in St. Louis.
For about 45 minutes, Trump spoke before an audience of supporters who had been invited by his campaign and had their questions pre-screened by his aides.
And rather than answer voters face to face, he fielded questions after they were read aloud by conservative radio host and Boston Herald columnist Howie Carr, a supporter who was playing the role of moderator.
In a low-key tone, Trump ranged across a familiar set of issues, as he blasted the Iran nuclear deal and President Obama’s health care law, and vowed to combat the opioid crisis by building a wall on the US-Mexico border to stop drugs from being smuggled into the country. He also said that, if elected, he would eliminate 70 percent of federal regulations.
“It’s just stopping businesses from growing,” he said.
As in the primary, he mocked the “crooked, crooked media,” read off a list of favorable poll numbers, though most polls show him trailing Clinton nationally and in a majority of swing states, and bragged about the size of his crowds.
“We have the biggest rallies,” Trump said. “Far bigger than Bernie’s.”
Trump scoffed at the notion that he was using the small gathering at Sandown Town Hall to help him rebound from a lackluster performance at the last debate and prepare for Sunday’s encounter — “This isn’t practice,” he insisted — and he disparaged Clinton for saying she was preparing herself.
“Forget debate prep,” he said. “Do you really think Hillary Clinton is debate prepping for three days. She’s resting.”
The event was mostly free of the bombast and raucous theatrics of Trump’s large rallies, and he insisted he wants to keep Sunday’s debate civil.
“I’d much rather have it be on policy,” he said, adding that he had not been as aggressive as he could have been at the last debate.
“I didn’t like getting into the gutter, so I did hold back,” he said. “I felt like I wanted to keep it on as high a level as possible.”
The highly orchestrated affair prompted some seasoned local political hands to complain that the event was not a traditional New Hampshire town hall meeting where voters of all stripes can ask questions directly of a presidential candidate without a campaign filter.
“Trump’s ‘Town Hall’ is sad,” Chris Ryan, a Concord radio host, wrote on Twitter. “Hand selected audience. Hand selected questions read by a fawning host off index cards.”
Trump has rarely held town hall meetings, mainly sticking to large rallies and avoiding questions since he won the Republican nomination this year.
At Thursday’s event, none of the questions put Trump on the defensive, and most came from enthusiastic backers, one of whom asked, “What advice would you give to young Americans looking to achieve the American dream?”
Answer: “You have to do what you love.”
Trump’s trip marked the sixth time he has visited the state since he won the primary in February. He is virtually tied with Clinton in the state, according to a Suffolk University/Boston Globe poll surveyed released Thursday that found Clinton with a slim lead over Trump, 44 percent to 42 percent. That’s well within the survey’s margin of error of 4.4 percentage points.
“I wanted to be here because we have lots of energy and because it was my first state, it meant so much to me,” Trump said, fondly recalling his primary win.
The selection of the Sandown suggested the influence of Governor Chris Christie of New Jersey, who watched from the sidelines as Trump spoke Thursday. Christie is reportedly helping Trump prepare for town-hall-style campaigning, a format that helped Christie become a national figure.
During the New Hampshire primary campaign last year, Christie held his own event at Sandown Town Hall and created campaign ads based on the event.