Most all of our campaign rituals are rooted in some deep traditions of the nation's past. Long before the mass-communicating age, candidates sometimes had to stand on tree stumps in order to be seen by crowds more than a few deep (hence the phrase, "stump speech). Today, Barack Obama's words are amplified to tens of thousands of voters in huge arenas and millions more on television and the Internet.
Debates are a more fickle, and relatively recent, phenomenon. The Lincoln-Douglass debates are, of course, legendary and historic – but mostly for the way they crystallized the divide on slavery which was helping speed the country toward civil war. The first real presidential debate (Lincoln and Douglass were Senate candidates) would wait until the dawn of the television age in 1960 when John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon faced one another on the same set. Three more presidential elections would pass before two presidential candidates met again – and it's become a campaign staple since.
The Commission on Presidential Debates last fall announced the schedule for 2008, which encompasses three presidential debates and one for the vice presidential candidates, beginning on September 26th. But John McCain doesn't want to wait that long and has invited Barack Obama to a series of as many as ten joint appearances at "town hall" meetings across the country. Obama's campaign has signaled that they are willing to do something like it but have yet to commit to any specifics.
It's easy to see why McCain would want such an arrangement. He appears much more comfortable in these settings, where he can stalk around the stage and interact with the audience. Even when faced with hostile questioners, McCain comes across as more natural than he does when seated on a stage taking questions from a moderator. It was after McCain shed his front-runner trappings (by necessity) and returned to town hall forums during the primary that he brought his campaign back from the near-dead.
Obama hasn't done them as frequently as McCain but the 22 debates and thousands of appearances he's done has certainly primed him for just about any forum. There's no reason to think he would perform any worse in a joint town hall meeting. But even so, there may be a reluctance to give the opponent an opportunity to improve himself.
Should these events happen at all, especially in the numbers McCain has proposed, it would be a historic and unprecedented series. But here's a thought: If proven to be popular among voters, it could also set the stage for an interesting situation in the fall push. It could allow McCain to propose a continuation of them as a substitute for the flat, staged televised debates proposed by the commission. And, unlikely though it may be, that would be a victory for McCain.
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