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Obama-mccain Forums: Still A Terrible Idea

I promise this is the last I'm going to say about this subject (at least until the next last time), but Jonathan Martin's great piece in the Politico today brings yet another reminder of why those Obama-McCain joint forums are such a terrible idea for Obama.

Jonathan's piece is about the alarm in GOP circles over McCain's abysmal public-speaking skills:

“Not good,” a McCain adviser conceded about the dueling images [from Tuesday night's speeches], speaking on condition of anonymity like others interviewed because of the sensitivity involved in critiquing their nominee’s presentation. “It’s never going to be his strong suit, and it will always be Obama’s.”

Alex Castellanos, a longtime GOP ad-maker, was more succinct, mixing gallows humor with a brave face in talking on CNN Tuesday night: "This is not a speechmaking contest,” he said. “Thank God.”

McCain’s speech, his “Kermit the Frog” green backdrop, even his physical appearance were fodder for scores of worried e-mails and phone calls Tuesday and Wednesday between Republican donors, operatives and lobbyists.

One Republican strategist who has worked on past national campaigns said he received messages during the night from GOP loyalists in every administration from Ronald Reagan to George W. Bush.

“They were appalled at the environment the candidate was standing in and his performance,” said this strategist. “It’s a serious problem — the contrast is so clear that it’s demoralizing. And it deflated our balloon last night. When the guys on Fox are trash-talking, you know it’s bad.”

According to Jonathan, all of these worried Republicans are looking to the joint forums as a lifeline:

"No presidential candidate can stop giving prepared speeches altogether, of course. But McCain aides and advisers are hopeful that they’ll better set up the candidate for success in the next five months by holding more town halls and forums sans lectern and teleprompter. The town hall/debate proposal to Obama follows this same strategy.

I've heard all the arguments for why the joint forums would actually benefit Obama--they'd highlight McCain's old age and diminutive stature; holding his own against a war hero would give Obama gravitas; etc.

There's something to this. But even if you think Obama would win on points in such a format, that doesn't make it a good idea for him. To make the right strategic call, you have to compare a race in which Obama does the forums to one in which he doesn't. And I don't think that comparison is even close. Under the joint forum scenario, Obama may do marginally better than McCain, but McCain won't be a disaster. Without the joint-forums, McCain has to give a high-profile speech every time he wants serious media attention. (Big media outlets just don't care much about low-key townhall meetings.) And, as we saw Tuesday night, he performs hideously in those settings.

So, at best, you're looking at a slight advantage for Obama under the joint-forum scenario versus a huge advantage for Obama without them. Seems like a no-brainer to me.

P.S. For what it's worth, the Obama campaign may be trying to have it both ways, in which case I'm all for it. Fred Barnes, via J-Mart, points out the following:

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.

I'm not sure why the McCain people would agree to this. But if they did, then great. Sign me up.

--Noam Scheiber