Where’s Obama? McCain asks

At nearly every town-hall meeting that John McCain conducts with voters these days, he stops to point out someone missing from the room: Barack Obama.

“I’ve asked Senator Obama to join me in town halls across the nation,” McCain said here the other morning. His notion was that the two of them would even share a plane and travel state to state taking questions from screened audiences of uncommitted voters.

Obama initially seemed enthusiastic about the idea when it was floated by Mark McKinnon, an adviser to McCain, as it became clear in early May that Obama was going to win the Democratic nomination.

“I think it’s a great idea,” Obama said at the time.

And for just a moment last spring, it seemed that voters might actually in be for the different kind of political campaign that McCain and Obama have both promised but, arguably, have yet to deliver.

The idea slipped away, though, after what appeared to be a half-hearted response from the Obama campaign.

McCain wanted to hold these town-hall meetings every Thursday until the Democratic convention at the end of August – about a dozen of them in all. The Obama campaign countered with an offer of five – but that included the three debates the two men were already scheduled to hold in the autumn, meaning that Obama was really agreeing to only two of the sessions that McCain proposed.

And the Obama camp wanted one of the two to be held on July 4, a day when Americans could be expected not to flock to their televisions.

Bill Burton, Obama’s press secretary, blamed the breakdown on the McCain campaign for failing to embrace the counteroffer Obama made.

“The McCain campaign didn’t respond to our last proposal, except to reject it through the media,” he said. “They were much happier to play the politics of these joint appearances. Given what we have in the weeks down the road, we’ll see what the schedule dictates.”

McCain’s aides scoffed at that, saying that what Obama – despite his initial enthusiasm – was offering was nothing like what McCain had suggested. Mark Salter, a senior adviser to McCain, said after the first conversations between the campaigns, “We were encouraged they were going to do it; after a week or two, we realized they had no intention of doing it.”

All of this is very much in keeping with the kind of race Obama is running these days: the safe, take-few-chances campaign of a front-runner.

From the view of Obama’s advisers, there was little reason to give McCain, who is struggling to win attention, the free publicity that would come from a joint national tour. Even though Obama has proven to be a formidable candidate not prone to mistakes, why risk putting him in a position where he could make an error? they say.

And civics aside, there is no evidence that politicians who duck debates are ever punished by voters for it. Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton made a similar demand for debates during the Wisconsin Democratic primary, which Obama won handily even though he rebuffed her.

Obama’s advisers suggest that one reason he has been avoiding town-hall matchups is because they play to his rival’s strengths. McCain has used such settings for a long time and he is good at them: He comes off as knowledgeable, fast on his feet, funny and charming.

International Herald Tribune