To understand the stylistic gulf between Barack Obama and John McCain, first consider their cultural references.
The Republican enjoys a good Henny Youngman one-liner and the 1970s Swedish pop group ABBA. He tells jokes about drunken Irish twins, and the reason he had to join the Navy instead of the Marines: His parents were married when he was born.
The Democrat, meanwhile, professes to “love the art of hip-hop.” He listens to Jay-Z, Beyoncé and old-school favorites like Stevie Wonder on his IPod. Chicago is “ChiTown,” sneakers are “kicks” and knuckle bumps are at times his greeting of choice.
Over the next five months, McCain and Obama will delineate differences not just on substance, but also on style. They are well-cast foes, cutting distinctions on presentation, personality and personal image. One is the master of the arena rally, the other the town hall. One can shrug it off, the other not as much. One can be stylish and professorial, the other corny and occasionally prickly.
McCain, 71, who moved to Washington as a freshmen U.S. House member in the same year that Obama graduated from college, is a consummate extrovert who delights in surrounding himself with people, whether they are Senate colleagues, long-serving aides or “Trotskyites,” as he sometimes calls members of the press corps. He is most confident when he can speak extemporaneously and parry with an audience. A military man from a military family, McCain is a former POW with a quick wit and a short fuse.
Obama, 46, who was in elementary school when McCain began serving in Vietnam, is at his best speaking from a prepared text, and using his gift for timing and diction to make carefully-honed words soar in cavernous arenas and pavilions. The son of a Kenyan father and a Kansan mother, Obama positions himself as the embodiment of the American dream—and of cool, both in taste and temperament. Aides describe him as rarely very high or very low, annoyed but not paralyzed by setbacks. Aloof at times, Obama can show minimal enthusiasm for some of the sillier rituals of campaign-trail life.
There are similarities, to be sure, as both claim to be straight-talking and reform-minded, and both are occasionally self-deprecating. While his rival knows of Hanna Montana and the Jonas Brothers through his two young daughters, McCain benefits from being the father of teens and 20-somethings; he's hip enough to joust with Jon Stewart and drop a "gaydar" reference on Saturday Night Live. And Obama can sometimes look less than hip, touting a traditional home life centered on children’s activities like sleepovers, bicycle rides and dance recitals.
But from a style standpoint, facing off against Obama is already proving to be a challenge for McCain. On their very first night as head-to-head opponents, McCain’s lackluster speech in New Orleans last week set off a wave of criticism that the Republican is neither as impressive as his opponent nor as polished or energizing.
McCain aides recognize their candidate’s oratory strengths and weaknesses and have sought to frame him in the best possible light by challenging Obama to a series of joint town hall events—the incarnation of the new brand of politics the Democrat promises to deliver.
Obama is open to the joint forums, but has not yet committed to any. Whatever he decides, aides expect Obama, who held down 15-hour days during the primary season, to continue the same pace of massive rallies, smaller policy-focused town hall events and retail stops. The mix plays to his strength (the big speech) and buttresses his weakness (claims of inexperience).
McCain aides expect to keep their candidate in smaller forums where he can display his command of policy and politics—and his sense of humor, a mix of impromptu and well-rehearsed wit that often comes at his own expense.
Holding a panel-style discussion n the environment last month near Seattle, McCain was quick to interject when a high school student mentioned that he wanted to offer a youthful perspective.
“We need that, obviously,” quipped McCain, who often describes himself as "older than dirt" and with "more scars than Frankenstein."
McCain delights in finding an audience member willing to play along with his penchant for Abbott and Costello-style give-and-take.
When a feisty elderly woman sitting close to the stage at McCain’s town hall meeting last week in Nashville took the microphone, the candidate gave as good as he got.
“Sen. McCain, have you chosen your vice-president?” inquired the woman.
“No, m’am, I have not,” McCain dutifully replied.
“May I make a suggestion?” she asked.
“I’ve had a few,” McCain shot back, “I could always use another.”
After the lady plugged local boy Fred Thompson, bringing down the house, McCain smiled broadly and waited for the applause to die down: “I kind of got the impression that if he were the candidate, I wouldn't have to spend a lot of time in Tennessee.”
If McCain is more freewheeling, Obama prefers order.
At town hall events, the Illinois senator can resemble a teacher in a classroom, occasionally encouraging better manners and dispensing rules on how the question-and-answer period will go down. Questioners must not shout, he says, but raise their hand, wait for a microphone and introduce themselves. He goes boy, girl, boy, girl, “so that nobody thinks I’m biased,” Obama says.
When an over-exuberant audience member would not pipe down last week in Bristol, Va., Obama said: "Hold on one second, I can't hear myself." A moment later, Obama softened his tone. "I'm glad you're fired up, though."
A former University of Chicago law school lecturer, Obama listens to the question, looking first at the questioner before pacing the stage with one hand in his pocket and his head down, nodding to the floor. As soon as the question is asked, the microphone returns to the Obama volunteer. McCain, on the other hand, tells questioners to hold on to the microphone for follow-up, which they usually offer.
“Obama hears the question from a voter, and addresses his answer to the whole group,” said Jennifer Donahue, political director at the New Hampshire Institute of Politics at Saint Anselm College in Manchester, NH. “McCain hears the question, and he addresses the person who asks the question.”
Obama is often restrained, striving mightily to retain his privacy and rarely shedding his all-business persona with the press. He showed little humor in the days after Saturday Night Live featured a parody of the press going easy on Obama. Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton made a snarky reference to the skit in the next debate, suggesting that the moderators might next offer Obama a pillow.
So the next time Obama came to the back of the press plane, a Washington Times reporter teasingly handed him a pillow and asked whether he would like one. “Obama held it for second, unsmiling, before handing it back,” according to an account on a Washington Times blog.
When a reporter attending a pancake breakfast in South Dakota joked about Obama’s memorable plea to journalists during the height of the Pennsylvania primary to be left alone to enjoy his waffle, the candidate coolly dismissed the quip.
By contrast, McCain, who might have responded with one of his trademark putdowns, like “little jerk,” spends hours debating and indulging the press on the back of his campaign bus and is refitting his campaign plane to provide a roundtable-type set for what could be called Straight Talk Air.
And McCain, who only recently and reluctantly received Secret Service protection, is far less guarded on the plane. When a reporter desperatey needed to charge his laptop battery on a cross-country flight on Super Tuesday, he walked up unnoticed to the front of the plane and plugged his charger in to the sole outlet on board—a row in front of the candidate. His aides didn’t flinch and McCain only looked up to draw the reporter’s attention to his in-seat TV, where a cable news station had taken a break from political coverage to report on a last blast of winter weather moving through the Midwest.
One move both candidates employ is eliciting laughter by making fun of themselves.
On an unexpected stop last month at Mount Rushmore in South Dakota, Obama deflected a question about his desire to see his face alongside the other former presidents.
“I don’t think my ears would fit,” Obama said, laughing. “There's only so much rock up there.”
For McCain, there’s the always-reliable tale of the guy who asked, “Say, has anybody every told you that you look a lot like Sen. John McCain?”
“I said, ‘yeah.’”
“He said, ‘Doesn’t it just make you mad as heck!’”
Corny? Perhaps. Predictable? As the tides. But it unfailingly loosens up a crowd.
Correction: Mt. Rushmore is located in South Dakota, not Montana as Politico originally reported.