Behind McCain's Town Hall Campaign

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Mike Derer / AP

Republican presidential candidate Sen. John McCain at a town hall meeting in Pemberton, N.J., on June 13

Sometimes in politics, the medium really is the message.

Surround Barack Obama with an arena of 20,000 supporters, or a city center with twice as many, and it doesn't so much matter what he says. The sheer spectacle speaks for itself — something new is happening, and a whole lot of people are passionate about being a part of it.

The same can be said for John McCain, though his trademark medium is anything but the formal rally, where his appearances can still leave empty seats and relatively subdued crowds even in a high school gymnasium. Instead, McCain is most at home in the "town hall meeting," a modern twist on the old New England civic institution, where neighbors would gather to participate in pure democracy. For McCain, the town hall is more than just a chance for him to spread his message of staying the course in Iraq and cutting taxes and spending. It is itself the message he wants to deliver.

"These town hall meetings are the most important part, in my view, of the process, because it not only gives you a chance to hear from me — and I'll try not to make you hear from me very long — but it gives me an opportunity to hear from you," McCain said Friday, at a town hall in central New Jersey. "It gives us a glimpse and an idea of your hopes, and your dreams, and your aspirations, and your frustrations today, and the challenges that you face, and better sets our priorities, and it helps me enormously."

As a practical matter, McCain overstates the reciprocity of these events. Over the more than 100 town halls he held in New Hampshire alone this cycle, it's hard to track many interactions that had any real effect on his policy positions. The one major historical exception is global warming, an issue on which McCain has broken with his party, in part, he says, because of all the environmental concerns he heard at town halls during the 2000 campaign. But even if the town halls are less interactive than he claims, his praise of them cannot overstate their importance to his candidacy.

On the night that Obama finally wrapped up the nomination and addressed a frenzied crowd of about 20,000 in St. Paul, McCain delivered a stiff, formal speech from Louisiana in front of what can simply be described as a green wall. If that sounds bad, it looked even worse. He came across as nervous, his eyes tracking the teleprompter, emphasizing the wrong words, and inserting sarcasm into phrases written to be sincere. In these settings, McCain can appear impatient and phony. He will attempt to cover up his discomfort with quick joyless flashes of an unconvincing grin.

But if his handlers take away the teleprompter, and allow him to interact with the crowd, McCain becomes a candidate transformed. He begins to have fun, spinning stories like an old sailor on a bar stool, and speaking with clarity about the issues that motivate him most. Though many of his words are memorized, repeated verbatim at each stop, they still manage to come across as conversational. Despite a bad knee, he will almost trot across a hall to hand a voter the microphone, and always give even the most combative questioners a chance to ask a follow-up question.

It's no wonder then that the McCain campaign is attempting to elevate the town hall format to a status not previously seen in a general election campaign, which is traditionally dominated by television ads, airport hangar rallies and formally moderated debates. McCain has challenged Obama to a series of weekly town halls this summer, an idea that is fast becoming the central argument of his candidacy. McCain's intention is to make the town hall format synonymous with honest campaigning and a new kind of politics. "I could give speeches all day long, as you know, and in different places," he continued on Friday. "But this is for you. This is for America. That's why I want to do these meetings, not because it's going to be easy."

Though initially receptive to the idea of joint town halls, the Obama campaign has so far opted to treat McCain's ambitious proposal as a calculated political threat, not a high-minded invitation to improve the democratic process. On Friday, the Obama campaign said that it would agree to a single town hall, on the Fourth of July, and an additional forum on foreign policy, a counteroffer that McCain quickly deemed unacceptable. The Obama camp may have genuine concerns about how their candidate will stack up against McCain in such a format. But they are also well aware that so many joint appearances only help McCain, who badly trails Obama in fund raising, rack up the free media exposure he needs to keep pace with his opponent.

Like the format itself, a debate over the issue of scheduling town halls is one that the McCain campaign thinks it will win. "I'll let the American people decide which they think is the preferable proposal," McCain said after rejecting Obama's counteroffer. "I understand that we will negotiate but I want the American people to have the exposure to a number of town hall meetings, not just one."

Assuming there is no resolution to the dispute, the campaign will use Obama's reluctance to join McCain as a spear point aimed at Obama's claims to be a different, more transparent type of politician. Even before the weekend, the war of words was already heating up. Obama campaign manager David Plouffe released a statement attacking McCain for playing politics. "Apparently they would rather contrive a political issue than foster a genuine discussion about the future of our country," Plouffe said. McCain spokesman Tucker Bounds quickly struck back with a zinger. "Barack Obama requires more preconditions to meet with voters and John McCain than he does Mahmoud Ahmadinejad," he said, referencing the Iranian President.

Over the coming months, it is fair to expect much more of this sort of back-and-forth over the town hall issue. It will be a war over process, but not an incidental one. Nearly the entire Republican establishment agrees that if the coming campaign is decided at the podium with a teleprompter, McCain has already lost. But if McCain can make the election about small-scale events like town halls, than the Republican has a clear shot at limiting the obvious impact of two of Obama's key strengths, his enormous crowds and his enormous war chest.