NEW YORK – Microphone in hand and surrounded on all sides by friendly inquisitors, Republican Sen. John McCain called on a man in the back row of New York’s Federal Hall Thursday night and waited for another opportunity to demonstrate his mastery of the off-the-cuff answer.
“We’ve got to put our country first and not our party first, and too many people have that reversed,” McCain told the man, who asked about how he would break Washington gridlock. “And by the way, this is not a cheap shot. It’s a matter of record. … You put your finger on what has to be done. Yes, there’s going to be a change in Washington, but will it be the right kind of change or the wrong kind of change?”
This is McCain’s arena of choice – the town hall – where years of mixing serious answers with flip comments and the occasional sarcastic insult has become his trademark as much as the smartly crafted speech in front of thousands defines his rival, Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill. Now, the McCain campaign sees town halls as a necessity, hoping the old-style format will serve as a video-age counterweight to the rhetorical chasm between his stilted and sometimes awkward speechmaking, and Obama’s often rousing delivery.
McCain, R-Ariz., has dared Obama to join him at 10 town hall meetings during the next 10 weeks, answering questions from a few hundred undecided people at a time. If it works as the campaign hopes, voters will see McCain as the more informed candidate, with a better command of the nitty-gritty issues that presidents face.
“This isn’t a gimmick or some type of a hidden ruse,” said McCain adviser Steve Schmidt, calling it a way to elevate the presidential debate and a chance to “change the trajectory of this campaign.”
The idea has helped soothe concerns among Republican strategists, who have been distraught over McCain’s inability to compete with Obama’s rhetorical flair. That contrast was never more evident than on the day last week when Obama clinched the Democratic nomination.
In a widely panned speech in Louisiana designed to kick off the general election, McCain flubbed some lines and smiled awkwardly at moments. He stood in front of a green banner and spoke to a crowd of a couple of hundred, a setting that was lampooned by Democrats and Republicans alike. An hour or so later, Obama spoke in the center of a St. Paul, Minn., arena in front of 17,000 screaming supporters.
“McCain has the potential in town hall meetings to be really good. He has almost no potential to be really good in a big speech and zero potential being better than Obama in a big speech,” said one Republican consultant, who asked for anonymity to discuss the campaign’s strategy on the town hall challenge. “It’s the one format where he could legitimately shine.”
But the risks are huge for McCain. He is essentially betting the presidency on a series of side-by-side performances with his rival in a largely uncontrolled environment.
On his own, town hall audiences are generally filled with Republicans, most of whom are supporters and often allow him to joke or finesse his way out of tough answers. The dynamic with Obama would be different, with a more skeptical audience and his chief rival on stage with him ready to challenge his answers.
Standing next to Obama during televised town hall meetings could also highlight the kind of direct comparison that most campaigns strive to avoid: the image of a 71-year-old candidate next to one who is 46.
It could give Obama a chance to upstage McCain, looking presidential in the one forum that had been exclusively McCain’s. Although Obama’s performance in debates was more uneven than his formal speechmaking, McCain’s advisers say they do not believe the Harvard-educated lawyer will flop in a town hall.
“It’s a risk that I believe is absolutely worth taking,” said Mark McKinnon, a former media consultant for McCain who helped conceive the town hall challenge. “I think when people see McCain unvarnished, they like what they see.”