McCain’s challenge to Obama

John McCain has challenged Barack Obama to a series of townhall meeting style debates. The debates would occur weekly between now and the convention.

Normally, of course, it’s the challenger who calls for lots of debates, and I think McCain is the challenger in a real sense. As I argued here, this election is far more of a referendum on Obama than a referendum on McCain.

But that’s the beauty of McCain’s challenge. Although there’s no reason to doubt that Obama would fare well enough in a series of debates with McCain, Obama is unlikely to accept McCain’s challenge. This is standard practice for non-challengers, but normally the non-challenger is an incumbent president or a sitting vice president. Voters are sufficiently familiar with such candidates to decide a “referendum” without seeing the candidate debate his opponent more than once in the fall (the non-challenger normally agrees to a few debates as a safety net in the event the first debate goes badly).

This is not the case with Obama, though. Voters will not easily decide to crown Obama without reasonably frequent exposure to him in pressure situations. Sound bites and soaring but largely vacuous speeches will not do the trick; Obama needs to begin facing McCain and taking questions from the public, not just listening to its hard luck stories. If he seems to be ducking this completely or to a significant degree, the advantage will go to McCain.

Such is the peril of becoming the frontrunner before becoming known

UPDATE: In a conference call with bloggers, McCain expanded on his challenge. He noted that his proposal is similar to one that President Kennedy and Senator Goldwater agreed to in 1963. By noting Kennedy’s willingness, as president, to participate in this format, he challenges Obama to live up to comparisons to JFK.

McCain also noted that the townhall meeting setting will “change the debate” and help bring about “a different kind of debate.” This, of course, is what Obama claims to stand for.

To a considerable degree, this election seems to be about which of the two candidates is (1) genuinely willing and able to work across party lines and (2) genuinely willing and able to change the tone and nature of the debate. McCain has a huge demonstrated edge on the first point. He is now working to gain an edge on the second.

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