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What I learned at ‘town hall’ campaign events

Image: Obama at a town hall in Iowa
Democratic presidential hopeful Barack Obama addresses a town hall style meeting at the McCreary Community Building on Dec. 31, 2007 in Perry, Iowa. Scott Olson / Getty Images file
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Conventional wisdom has it that Republican presidential contender Sen. John McCain has a home court advantage when it comes to the “town hall style” format that will be used in Nashville Tuesday night when he faces off with Democratic candidate Sen. Barack Obama.

Not surprisingly, in the political game of setting low expectations, the Obama campaign’s Tuesday talking points morning memo for reporters said just that: “The Town Hall Format Of The Debate Favors McCain.”

Here’s my assessment. Based on covering both of these candidates in the primaries and what I saw at their town-hall style events in Iowa, New Hampshire and Pennsylvania last winter and spring, McCain and Obama are equally good at this format.

Being stuck behind a podium does make McCain seem constrained. The Arizona senator does seem more natural and exuberant when he is on the move, when he can stroll back and forth across the stage, fielding questions, when his nervous energy has some outlet.

Obama town halls: Always skillful
But at several Obama “town hall style” events in the primary season Obama was always extremely skillful and in complete command.

It sometimes appeared at those events that part of Obama’s mind was elsewhere, but he never seemed to be “phoning it in.” He simply has the quality of being fully present for a crowd and being a bit detached at the same time.

The distinct advantage that Iowa and New Hampshire voters have over the rest of the electorate is that back in October, November, and December of last year, they really did see these two presidential candidates in very small settings, sometimes 300 or 400 people, sometimes fewer.

They could get close to Obama and McCain, ask questions, and form an impression of each man’s personality.

How Obama played in small-town Iowa
Many of the Iowans who showed up at Obama’s small town events were favorably impressed.

Dennis Pearson, a self-described Republican who showed up to see Obama at a stop in Manchester, Iowa, told me after seeing him perform for 45 minutes that he seemed to be "an honest, sincere person who will bring back some sincerity to the presidency…. He may not have the experience, but I think he can inspire people.”

At one event last December in the town of Monticello, Iowa (population 3,607) Obama delivered his usual stump speech for 20 minutes — “The problem we’ve got right now is that we’ve got a president who spends more time thinking about Wall Street than he does about Main Street.”

He then deftly fielded questions from the local people on topics from federal funding of cancer research to the treatment of women in Saudi Arabia to how Norway uses its oil revenues to promote energy efficiency.

Never did he seem at a loss or thrown off guard.

He was just as poised in the relatively small setting of Monticello, Iowa as he was in front of the mass crowds in Berlin, Germany or at Invesco field in Denver.

In contrast to Obama, McCain brings a bit more zest for combat to his town hall events.

How McCain handled an adversarial question
McCain drew more than a thousand people to a question-and-answer session meeting in Salem, N.H., the Sunday before the New Hampshire primary.

He fielded one question from a man who said “a lot of us independents are teetering right now,” contending that independents were undecided between Obama and McCain, or between Hillary Clinton and McCain.

One of the risks of the town hall format was that a supporter of a rival candidate could show up and ask an adversarial question. A self-described “independent” could later turn out to be a committed partisan.

It wasn’t clear in the case of the questioner in Salem, N.H., whether he was in that category or not. But he criticized McCain saying, “It was such a huge disappointment to see you change your position” — McCain having once opposed the 2001 and 2003 tax cuts and now favoring extending them.

“I never changed my position, but go ahead,” McCain said, offering the man a chance to respond. “You can say it, but it’s not true.”

McCain seemed to delight in jousting with this man. The chance for combat is what he most appears to enjoy about the format.

“You and I may have a philosophical difference,” he told the man. “I will not increase taxes.”

In the end, the questioner, whether he’d intended to or not, served as a foil for McCain to make his anti-tax pitch.

Keep in mind that even in the primaries, the “town hall” format itself is somewhat contrived and not the authentic 19th century New England town meeting that some people imagine.

It’s not just the electrician, the waitress, and the dairy farmer who show up at these events during lunch hour.

At the town hall events in Iowa and New Hampshire last winter there were invariably several people in the crowd who represented advocacy groups, labor unions, or other interests who make a practice of hiring locals (residents of Iowa and New Hampshire) to go to such events and ask the candidates to take a stand on universal health insurance or carbon dioxide emissions or some other litmus test topic.

Tuesday’s night audience has been selected by the Gallup Organization in an attempt to seek voters who are not passionate partisan but “leaners.”

Learning from Bill Clinton
The lesson of Bill Clinton’s performance at the 1992 “town hall” style event with Ross Perot and President George H.W. Bush was: empathize with the questioner — and then use the question as a jumping off point for your campaign theme.

One woman at that Oct. 15, 1992 event asked the three candidates, “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 in what's ailing them?”

Bush flailed. “I love my grandchildren,” he told her. “I want to think that they're going to be able to afford an education. I think that that's an important part of being a parent.”

Then perhaps remembering his own inherited wealth, he said, “Are you suggesting that if somebody has means (wealth) that the national debt doesn't affect them?”

Then he confessed, “I'm not sure I get — help me with the question and I'll try to answer it.” It wasn’t a shining moment for the Bush campaign.

Finally the questioner said, “I've had friends that have been laid off from jobs.”

The question was really about the recession not the national debt so perhaps Bush was understandably crossed up.

But this gave Clinton a priceless opening: he walked toward the woman and asked in a commiserating voice, “You know people who've lost their jobs and lost their homes?”

This allowed Clinton to launch into his stump speech about how “we are in the grip of a failed economic theory.”

Success at such events hinges on pouncing on opportunities as Clinton did.