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Throughout the campaign, Republicans have lamented Donald Trump’s lack of commitment to conservative principles. Their party has nominated a man who promises to manage the federal government better, not make it smaller or more in line with the Constitution.

Sunday’s second presidential debate in St. Louis may be when this finally pays off for Republicans. That might seem counterintuitive, given that Trump’s running mate Mike Pence, a conventional fiscal conservative, just turned in the strongest general election debate performance yet.

But the next debate is going to be a townhall. That format invites audience members to tell the candidates about their problems and ask what the government is going to be do about them. While this is an inherent part of democratic politics in a welfare state, it puts the party of limited government at a disadvantage against the party of redistribution.

The Republican presidential candidate will sometimes have to say no to requests for government assistance while the Democrat can usually say yes. Even if the Republican says yes, the Democrat can outbid him. Or the Republican may have to argue that her policies would benefit the questioner less directly, such as by accelerating economic growth.

If the Democrat also happens to be more gregarious than the Republican, well, then all bets are off.

George H.W. Bush, who wasn’t exactly a libertarian, fell victim to this in the very first townhall presidential debate in 1992. One woman got up to ask: “How has the national debt personally affected each of your lives and if it hasn’t, how can you honestly find a cure for the economic problems of the common people if you have no experience dealing with them?”

Bush began to talk about the national debt’s influence on interest rates, oblivious to the fact that the questioner was really asking about the lingering effects of the early 1990s economic downturn. She pressed him to elaborate on what that meant for him personally. He then started to talk about his grandchildren before getting defensive, asking the woman if she was saying the national debt can’t affect the rich.

“I don’t think it’s fair to say you haven’t had cancer therefore you don’t know what it is like,” Bush told this woman on national television. Bill Clinton then got up and felt the woman’s pain, hitting it out of the park with his empathetic response.

In the same debate, an audience member Rush Limbaugh immortalized as the “ponytail guy” got up and asked a question premised on the idea the American people were “symbolically the children” of the next president of the United States.

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By the end of this event, Bush was looking at his watch and not even Ross Perot, the star of the other two debates, could keep up with Clinton’s combination of unctuousness and government handouts.

Yes, Trump is a rich guy like Bush or Perot. But he’s running on bringing jobs back from overseas, not balancing the budget. He opposes entitlement reforms that could be construed as cutting Social Security or Medicare. He wants to spend more money on infrastructure and less of it nation-building in foreign countries like Iraq.

Much of what Trump says may be bad policy or bad economics, if spelled out in sufficient detail to render a judgment at all. The audience is St. Louis is not likely to be stacked with free-market economists. The economic (and other) anxieties of the white working class has been at the center of Trump’s campaign and millions of voters have responded.

Hillary Clinton may be able to match her husband’s commitment to government benevolence. In fact, she will probably be able to exceed it, running in a climate where his centrist New Democrat politics are less popular within the party than Bernie Sanders’ overt socialism. But she is not in his league when it comes to glad-handling and establishing a personal connection with voters.

Trump is gaffe-prone, but he is also a professional entertainer who has shown that same ability to connect with audiences at various points during his presidential campaign. Trump’s rallies attract huge crowds for a reason. George W. Bush did better than his father at townhalls because he was a more natural politician, platform aside, and was running against people like John Kerry.

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This time, the Republican nominee isn’t really running on taking government benefits away from anyone. The only arguable exception is Obamacare, a law that Clintons have conceded is flawed and that Mr. I Feel Your Pain recently described as “crazy.”

For Trump, the townhall format contains two risks. One is that he has offended many groups of people during the course of this race and has seldom been willing to apologize. He can expect at least one, possibly many, confrontations from attendees troubled by his rhetoric. How will Trump respond?

The second pitfall for Trump is that at least some of the questioners will be as eager to press him on specifics as any network moderator. They won’t be equipped to as readily fact-check him, but he’ll have to come with some details.

What Trump probably won’t do is talk about how he isn’t going to give voters “free stuff.”

That’s bad for those of us who believe in limited government, but could bode well for his chances to rebound in Sunday’s debate.

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