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Barnes: Why Obama's Afraid of Town-Hall Debates

1:52 PM, Jun 5, 2008 • By FRED BARNES
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Barack Obama was thrown off guard by John McCain's proposal for them to appear together at 10 town hall meetings this summer before the party conventions. Or maybe his initial response was merely disingenuous.

Obama has insisted for months now that the campaign should be civil and friendly and geared to ending polarization and promoting bipartisanship. Seizing on this, McCain said in his letter to Obama that they should fly on the same plane to at least the first town hall meeting and then have nine more across the country--just the two of them gabbing with the grass roots.

So why wouldn't Senator Bring-Us-Together jump enthusiastically at the opportunity? Several reasons, all political. Obama figures he's going to win because of the strong Democratic tide and doesn't want to offer opportunities for Republicans to lay a glove on him. Also, he's not particularly good at town hall gatherings--spontaneity is not his thing--but McCain is at his best at such sessions. And Obama would rather give set speeches, at which he's terrific, than take questions that might force him to deal with things (Rev. Wright, Tony Rezko, etc.) he'd rather not talk about.

Responding to McCain's proposal, Obama told ABC News that he'd "definitely" do "some" town hall debates. But campaign manager David Plouffe said Obama would prefer "less structured" events like the Lincoln-Douglas debates. Surely Plouffe and Obama know better. Those famous 1858 debates were highly structured: one candidate spoke for an hour, the other for 90 minutes, then a 30-minute rebuttal by the first. No questions, no interaction, no surprises, no moments of unrehearsed candor--only set speeches.

What's actually less structured? Town hall meetings. They are the least structured of all campaign events, especially if the questioners aren't handpicked and their questions aren't scripted and given to the candidates in advance. To Obama, that's a recipe for trouble--unless, of course, the whole thing is structured to limit the question topics and thus avoid surprises or awkward moments.