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Analysis: Town Halls Have Risks, Benefits

By JIM KUHNHENN
Associated Press Writer

BOSTON (AP) - Two political rivals on a stage, unfiltered questions from undeclared voters, thoughtful answers, no soundbites. Democracy at its best or risky politics?

Republican presidential candidate John McCain has asked Democratic rival Barack Obama to participate in 10 joint summer town hall appearances, beginning with one Thursday evening in New York - a chance to stand side by side taking all an audience can deliver with no media filter to intervene.

"I have not heard from Senator Obama," McCain said Wednesday in Philadelphia. "But I urge him to meet with me in town hall meetings all over America."

By making the entreaty, the McCain camp is betting the veteran senator from Arizona would gain an edge. And the Obama camp appears in no hurry to give it to him.

"I think that it's not realistic to do all 10 given all the campaigning that I have to do since we just finished our primary election," Obama told reporters on Tuesday, adding that he would likely propose a "mix of formats."

McCain initially planned to note Obama's absence from New York's Federal Hall on Thursday with an empty chair. The event is now produced by Fox News and the prop has been scrapped.

But, what are the stakes?

"Talking in win-loss terms misunderstands the opportunity that each of them has here to do something they both say they want to do - signal a different kind of campaign," said Kathleen Hall Jamieson, a noted communications professor and director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania.

Still, this is an age of 24-7 news cycles, where misstatements, distortions and blunders become instant sensations, traveling at broadband speed across the country. Just Wednesday, McCain created a Democratic furor after he was asked on NBC's "Today Show" if he had "a better estimate of when American forces can come home."

"No, but that's not too important," he replied, adding that the key issue was fewer casualties.

And town hall sessions can be more spontaneous, unpredictable and idiosyncratic than your standard media interview.

In a 1992 town hall encounter, the first of its kind in a presidential race, Bill Clinton emerged the presumed winner after President George H.W. Bush mishandled a question about how the national debt had personally affected the candidates.

"The more time you spend exposed, the greater the chances of stumbling, fumbling and plain old stepping in it," Republican strategist Tony Fabrizio said.

Some McCain advantages:

- He has little to lose in a bad political environment for the GOP. President Bush's poor job approval numbers are hurting Republicans, the economy is reeling and many Americans want U.S. troops home from Iraq.

- He is better experienced at town halls than Obama. It is his favorite style of campaigning, one he returned to after his campaign nearly collapsed a year ago.

- If Obama has a financial advantage, the best way for McCain to equalize the terrain is by getting free media attention. "My guess is it makes up for their lack of money," Democratic strategist Mark Mellman said.

- A vigorous performance could put questions about McCain's age to rest. "How do you establish that age isn't an issue? You're responsive, you're on point, you're funny, you're engaged," Jamieson said. "It's the strongest format he's got to take that issue off the table."

Some McCain risks:

- Recurrent side by side images of McCain and Obama together could emphasize McCain's age. A verbal gaffe, a memory slip would undo any benefit he gained from a display of stamina.

- McCain is expected to be at home in this format, so expectations for him would be higher.

- Town halls can circle back and bite. McCain, campaigning in New Hampshire, told an anti-war voter that a U.S. presence in Iraq could end up being similar to that in South Korea and that troops could remain in Iraq "100 years." Democrats have seized on the remark and have used it in ads.

Some Obama advantages:

- The town hall format would permit longer answers, with more substance and nuance. During his primary debates, Obama often failed to get to the point of his answers in the allotted time.

- Voter worries about race. "If the Obama campaign is concerned about people who have a thousand fears to bear about a candidate who is black, how does he best combat that?" Jamieson said. "By creating familiarity. The surest way to get rid of stereotypes is contact - extended contact."

Some Obama risks:

- Flubbing an answer would pierce his reputation for eloquence or cast him as inexperienced.

- The fewer the number of joint appearances, the more important and more scrutinized they become.

- Avoiding town hall meetings with McCain would undermine his claim that he is a new style of politician. After all, he is the one who has said he would talk to foreign leaders, whether they are friend or foe.

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EDITOR'S NOTE - Jim Kuhnhenn covers the presidential campaign for The Associated Press.

(Copyright 2008 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)


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