McCain’s St. Paul sojourn: Policy, not personality

posted at 10:59 am on June 20, 2008 by Ed Morrissey

Yesterday, I had an opportunity to attend one of John McCain’s town-hall forums, which took place at the Landmark Forum in St. Paul, just around the corner from the Xcel Energy Center where Republicans will meet in September to nominate him as their candidate for president.  I live-blogged it, which has its virtues but didn’t give me much time for reflection on the event as a whole and McCain’s performance in it.

When I arrived at the venue, my first impression was how much security it involved.  I don’t want to reveal too much about this for obvious reasons, but it involved at least two local law-enforcement agencies as well as the Secret Service, and they weren’t subtle about it — and I was happy to see them all.  They all worked in a professional and efficient manner, and it took all of five minutes to process the media through the checkpoint.

The venue itself was smaller than I expected.  The intimacy allowed John McCain to connect very directly with the participants, in some cases handing them his own microphone rather than waiting for a staffer to bring the other remote.  Less than 200 people got invited into the forum, which only put them three or four times larger than the press contingent on the other side of the ropes.

Governor and rumored VP short-lister Tim Pawlenty gave a very brief introduction, followed by a John McCain opening speech that only lasted about ten minutes.  I captured about half of it here:

McCain didn’t spend a lot of time hitting at Barack Obama during the event. Most of the criticism of his opponent took place in this clip, and what little came afterwards mostly focused on Obama’s refusal to meet McCain in town-hall events.  Many have rationalized this as a response to McCain’s supposedly loading up on friendly questioners, but I saw no evidence of that last night.  At least two of the questioners were obvious skeptics from the Left, including this veteran of Iraq who asked McCain about veteran’s benefits:This actually led to one of McCain’s better moments at the event.  McCain recognized the efforts of the VA workers who struggle through massive red tape and huge backlogs to serve America’s veterans, but questioned the need for the VA to provide normal care.  He instead proposed that the VA offer all-inclusive medical insurance to those who do not need specialized, post-combat care so that the VA can concentrate on those disciplines and offer much more effective care to those who need it most.  Most veterans would then be able to get their needs met in local clinics and hospitals that would give them much less hassle.

And this explains, in part, why Obama fears McCain in these venues.  McCain can work on his feet because he has a much firmer grasp of policies and facts.  When challenged by a woman to defend his position on Iraq, McCain offers specifics about the strategies, tactics, and status on the ground.  In fact, McCain gave her a follow-up opportunity that he didn’t afford to anyone else when it looked like he hadn’t convinced her, just so he could try again.   When a conservative asked why those on the Right should trust him, a rather bold challenge that had the media perked back up, he gave no indication that the question flustered him, but calmly and confidently walked through his positions to show those efforts that he believes should convince conservatives to support him.

One area where McCain might find it hard to compete with Obama would be charisma.  Despite a few self-deprecating jokes and a couple of off-hand remarks during the event, McCain did not charm his way through it.  He seemed energetic and determined, but a little detached.  I don’t think anyone walked away from the Landmark Center with the belief that they had met the personal John McCain.  He joked at one point that he wasn’t running for Miss Congeniality, an obvious swipe at Barack Obama, but he seemed determined to prove it by demonstrating his gravitas at all times.

Does America appreciate gravitas, or do they want to be charmed?  That would make an interesting study if the two started appearing together for these events, which apparently won’t happen.  McCain did very well last night — if the American electorate wants competence and experience.  We’ll see.

The press got good seats for this, and I had a front-row seat in the gallery.  Fellow bloggers Michael Brodkorb and Gary Miller sat behind me, as did Mark Halperin from Time, and I sat between reporters for The Economist and AP (their local office).  The most interesting aspect of the media was their rush to interview the people who had asked questions.  I’m not sure what insights they could glean from the momentary celebrities; the point of the questions wasn’t to convince the questioners but to have McCain provide answers to the nation as a whole.  Otherwise, the national and local media seemed to emulate McCain — professional, detached, and friendly in a nominal manner.

Was it worth the hassle to attend?  Absolutely.  John McCain has a winning strategy in pursuing these forums.  It highlights his strengths on policy, experience, and fearlessness.  The only thing he needs is for the news channels to start broadcasting these live — and they may have to do that after the conventions in order to cover McCain.


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I uh, think that uh, Hussein would, uh, eat McCain’s, uh, lunch in one of these, uh venues.

Akzed on June 20, 2008 at 11:05 AM

I like the idea of having small, intimate discussions with voters but I don’t like the idea of looking like a fool on national tv when Obama has a rally at a packed NBA arena and McCain is in the conference room at the local Hilton talking to 200 or so people. You can have the intimate town hall meetings, but throw some flashy rallies in there as well.

malan89 on June 20, 2008 at 11:09 AM

Akzed on June 20, 2008 at 11:05 AM

Here comes that middle name crap again. We can beat him without trying to play silly word association games with his name. Doing that just makes us look weak.

malan89 on June 20, 2008 at 11:10 AM

The only thing he needs is for the news channels to start broadcasting these live — and they may have to do that after the conventions in order to cover McCain.

They won’t cover them at all unless McCain makes a gaffe, then they will be all over that one particular sound bite.

The MSM is going to have it’s hands full keeping the halo above the Obamamessiah’s head while desperately trying to bury Obama’s waffles, BS and dirty laundry. When they are not busy doing that they are going to have their hands full trying to make Michelle Obama into anything other then what she truly is-an black version of Evita Peron.

Nahanni on June 20, 2008 at 11:10 AM

As I said before, if I were McCain, I’d have two chairs on the stage. One marked “Sen. McCain” and one marked “Sen. Obama.” I wouldn’t mention them at all, unless asked. The empty chair sitting there the whole time would be all that needed to be said.

Kafir on June 20, 2008 at 11:15 AM

Obamamessiah’s

I think I prefer ObaMahdi…

right4life on June 20, 2008 at 11:16 AM

malan89 on June 20, 2008 at 11:10 AM

Unfortunately not enough people realize this. The second someone says “hussein” I stop reading. Why go any further? Even with a decent argument, you are marginalized.

lorien1973 on June 20, 2008 at 11:16 AM

Ed, it is too bad that this computer doesn’t allow me to do anything when you live blog. Do you think you may try to get some streaming audio if you ever get the chance to go to another?

upinak on June 20, 2008 at 11:16 AM

Yeah, between Obama’s ability to pay for air-time and the free air-time the media is eager to give to him, I don’t expect to see much of John McCain’s face in the microseconds between Obama coverage. McCain’s going to have to talk to more people at a time to get his message across, I think. Intimate townhalls for the few hundred people who get to attend them are probably great. But he needs more than a few hundred voters to hear his message and grok his gravitas.

aero on June 20, 2008 at 11:18 AM

Kafir on June 20, 2008 at 11:15 AM

Bloody good idea. Visually damning.

LimeyGeek on June 20, 2008 at 11:19 AM

McCain’s best strategy for townhalls is this. Here’s an excerpt:

Before each town hall, offer Obama a public invitation. Then, when setting up for the event, place an extra chair onstage with Obama’s name in large type. As you begin each meeting, apologize to the crowd that Sen. Obama decided against answering their questions. “Hopefully he’ll show up to our next stop,” you can add. Then, never mention his absence again. The empty chair will accomplish a lot more than words ever will.

And hammer the following point home: “I want to listen to the American people; Obama just wants to lecture.”

(Sen. McCain, just drop my consulting fee in the Tip Jar. Thanks.)

Exurban Jon on June 20, 2008 at 11:19 AM

I uh, think that uh, Hussein would, uh, eat McCain’s, uh, lunch in one of these, uh venues.

Akzed on June 20, 2008 at 11:05 AM

Yes there was surely too much “uh” and not enough substance to keep my attention. But worse than that was the “bird chirp” his pronunciation causes every time he says a word that has an “S” in it. Incredibly annoying! I noticed his wife does the same thing.

That screeching whistle every three or four seconds is just horrible and distracting, is that a problem with his dentures or what?

Maxx on June 20, 2008 at 11:20 AM

Does America appreciate gravitas, or do they want to be charmed?

For now, charmed. In November, my money is on gravitas.

forest on June 20, 2008 at 11:20 AM

Here comes that middle name crap again. We can beat him without trying to play silly word association games with his name. Doing that just makes us look weak.
malan89 on June 20, 2008 at 11:10 AM

Are you one of those folks who believe that we should not highlight Barak Hussein Obama’s terrorist connections? That we should not talk about his connections to black liberation theologists? His connections to Rezko off limits?

Yea maybe instead we can force a few more Republicans out of office for dumb mistakes and then stand around waiting for the Democrats to love us for our self righteousness.

PierreLegrand on June 20, 2008 at 11:20 AM

upinak on June 20, 2008 at 11:16 AM

If I get another chance, yes, I’d like to try it. I may not get another chance besides the convention, and in that case most people will be able to follow along.

Ed Morrissey on June 20, 2008 at 11:21 AM

Ed, the liveblog was great and watching/listening to Johnny Mac last night reinforced, to me, that he is comfortable in his own skin and isn’t afraid to disagree with someone.

That said, I don’t have any hope that the MSM will cover these meetings with McCain coming out with something game changing. He needs to define a position on something that makes a voter’s (or reporter’s) ears perk up. I know he isn’t much into gobsmacking, but without something to get attention thrown his way those Obama rock concerts are going to end up burying him.

Limerick on June 20, 2008 at 11:22 AM

cover these meetings withOUT McCain

Limerick on June 20, 2008 at 11:23 AM

The second someone says “hussein” I stop reading. Why go any further? Even with a decent argument, you are marginalized.

lorien1973 on June 20, 2008 at 11:16 AM

as in Rush’s parody…mccain will soon be calling BHO ‘rosebud’…

right4life on June 20, 2008 at 11:23 AM

He instead proposed that the VA offer all-inclusive medical insurance to those who do not need specialized, post-combat care…

That’s what I’ve been saying–give them health insurance, and choice. Make the VA compete for patients. Do NOT just add to the bureaucracy by giving us universal government care.

PattyJ on June 20, 2008 at 11:23 AM

On a liberal live-blog, that I found a link to from Minnesota Public Radio’s website, one commenter complained that McCain never talked about the economy. I had no access, to comment, but I wanted to say, “what the hell do you think all the drilling talk is about? Energy costs are the anvil around the neck of the economy right now. Are you listening to what people are complaining about?”

RBMN on June 20, 2008 at 11:25 AM

Ed Morrissey on June 20, 2008 at 11:21 AM

Thank you Ed. The fact I am anywhere from 4 to 1 hour(s) behind everyone sucks and I never get to see any of the campaining.

BUT, if McCain ever comes up here… I can try to do a live audio feed, so you can all here what he would say to the Alaskan people. Wouldn’t that be a interesting spin.

upinak on June 20, 2008 at 11:27 AM

upinak on June 20, 2008 at 11:27 AM

Just a photo of him with a 30-06 in his hands and his foot on a caribou would be worth 500,000 votes.

Limerick on June 20, 2008 at 11:29 AM

Limerick on June 20, 2008 at 11:29 AM

Well Lim, I know the right people I could get it taken care of. But depending on when he comes up (if he ever does) don’t you want me to do a smack down on him and make sure he goes to ANWR? Now that I am sure I can get someone to do!

upinak on June 20, 2008 at 11:32 AM

I hate IE… this site gets hung up.

upinak on June 20, 2008 at 11:36 AM

Ed,

You talked about McCain’s better moments, when the issues were veteran’s issues and Iraq. How did he do on energy, economics, immigration or other topics, or did they not come up?

BigD on June 20, 2008 at 11:40 AM

Yeah, that worked so well for John Kerry when he went duck hunting.

I ditched my Ducks Unlimited membership because they put up with that charade. Every actual hunter in the country was laughing their asses off over that one, while putting a checkmark next to Kerry’s name on the list of “people I never want walking behind me with a gun.”

I think the NRA’s twitching over this election… Barry is a true-blue gun banner, but Mac has jumped on the gun control wagon whenever it’s bought him favorable MSM coverage.

E1701 on June 20, 2008 at 11:40 AM

From the NPR feed I got the idea they wanted to ask the askers because they wanted everyone to say they were for McCain before they had gotten there. The guy actually seemed bummed that a couple of dems and indy’s got to ask questions, going so far to say “they actually let the democrat in”.
Yes Obama is very scared to face McCain in a non scripted event like a town hall. At times the greatest orator of out time reminds my of porky pig.

Zaggs on June 20, 2008 at 11:54 AM

Does America appreciate gravitas, or do they want to be charmed?

Judging by what rates high on television these days, I’d say the answer is “to be charmed”. The general population is too intellectually lazy to want to have to think about things like plans, solutions and in-depth analysis of substantive issues. They want quick soundbites that make them feel better, and then want to pawn off the hard work to someone else to think about.

That’s why Obama is doing so well. He’s like the reality tv show of today’s entertainment world. Instead of psychological thrillers or complex dramas, he’s the stupid human tricks of the presidential campaign and people like to be able to watch him while tuning out the real world.

Texas Rainmaker on June 20, 2008 at 12:12 PM

McCain needs to do a town hall at ANWR with intros by Ms Palin.

ANWR, ANWR, ANWR, ANWR, he needs it pounded into his skull. Energy is THE biggest story going forward these next few months. It may be the biggest story these next few years.

It is the only location of readily available crude with a pre existing infrastructure not 35 miles away.

McCain, get your butt on a plane.

patrick neid on June 20, 2008 at 12:20 PM

Just a photo of him with a 30-06 in his hands and his foot on a caribou would be worth 500,000 votes.

Limerick on June 20, 2008 at 11:29 AM

Even better if he could have the ANWR sign as a backdrop, if there is such a sign.

Kafir on June 20, 2008 at 12:27 PM

Does America appreciate gravitas, or do they want to be charmed?

Judging by what rates high on television these days, I’d say the answer is “to be charmed”. The general population is too intellectually lazy to want to have to think about things like plans, solutions and in-depth analysis of substantive issues. They want quick soundbites that make them feel better, and then want to pawn off the hard work to someone else to think about.

That’s why Obama is doing so well. He’s like the reality tv show of today’s entertainment world. Instead of psychological thrillers or complex dramas, he’s the stupid human tricks of the presidential campaign and people like to be able to watch him while tuning out the real world.

Texas Rainmaker on June 20, 2008 at 12:12 PM

Good point, that’s why I believe, based on his looks, the Dems and MSM were scared to death of Mitt Romney.

Firmworm on June 20, 2008 at 12:30 PM

Kafir on June 20, 2008 at 12:27 PM

I looked around the net….Outdoor Life has a YouTubed interview with McCain from May. He states he is not a hunter but loves to fish. At least he doesn’t duck(no pun intended) the issue. I understand his hunting position as I’m an avid gun advocate/owner but don’t hunt. Just not my cup-o-tea. I don’t mind plunking a varmit but find the local butcher much better at that job then me.

Limerick on June 20, 2008 at 12:33 PM

I was at a fundraiser at a home in River Oaks for McCain on Tuesday here in Houston. I got the same impression. McCain is repeating too much. He told some of the same jokes he told at the last fundraiser I went to back in March. He has his talking points down, but he needs to work on not sounding so rehearsed. He needs to just be himself.

I am sure is sick of saying the same things, but we have a long way to go in this race. He obviously has the energy, he just needs to bring back some of the charm.

Rightwingsparkle on June 20, 2008 at 12:41 PM

Does America appreciate gravitas, or do they want to be charmed? That would make an interesting study if the two started appearing together for these events, which apparently won’t happen. McCain did very well last night — if the American electorate wants competence and experience. We’ll see.

Ed, that is way too editorialized.

BigD on June 20, 2008 at 12:43 PM

On the charm vs. gravitas question, there was a great quote at The Corner yesterday, introduced in connection to Global Warming, from de Tocqueville regarding how Americans react to politicians like Obama:

“They do not combat him energetically, they sometimes even applaud him. To his impetuosity they secretly oppose their inertia; to his revolutionary instincts, their conservative instincts; their homebody tastes to his adventurous passions; their good sense to the leaps of his genius; to his poetry, their prose. He arouses them for a moment with a thousand efforts, but soon after they get away from him, and, as if dragged down by their own weight, they fall back.”

CK MacLeod on June 20, 2008 at 12:46 PM

BIG QUESTION

What did he say, if anything, about the border?

Because MM has a post about his “secret” meetings with Hispanics, where he said that he would push his same old agenda of “Comprehensive” reform from day one of his administration.

Romeo13 on June 20, 2008 at 12:52 PM

if the American electorate wants competence and experience.

Ed, please! You have to vote for the _____________ (insert lefty flavor of the day). I’ve said it to friends before and I will say it until St Pete goes to kick me downstairs. I vote for leadership, expericence and issues. Not for race, color, gender etc. If that makes me a sexist, racist, etc then so be it. McCain’s not my first and best choice from the Conserv Repub POV but he is so far above and beyond BO.

VikingGoneWild on June 20, 2008 at 1:15 PM

Romeo13 on June 20, 2008 at 12:52 PM

What he said (paraphrase) was that it was:

1> secure the border first
2> then work on the current illegal resident issue by
…..a> going to the back of the line
…..b> establish a guest worker program that requires employers to verify an workers status or face penalty or prosecution

That is what I heard. Others may have had different ears on.

Limerick on June 20, 2008 at 1:43 PM

For now, charmed. In November, my money is on gravitas.

forest on June 20, 2008 at 11:20 AM

I hope you are right. It seems like everyone wants to be charmed, but those may be the more vocal ones. I hope the ones who appreciate gravitas will come out of the woodwork on election day.

Grafted on June 20, 2008 at 2:45 PM

McCain is just so much more qualified to be president, that there really should not be much of a question about it.

Terrye on June 20, 2008 at 2:55 PM

MM has not been a help with this issue. In fact she has made it more difficult for Republicans to come together.

Terrye on June 20, 2008 at 2:56 PM

MM has not been a help with this issue. In fact she has made it more difficult for Republicans to come together.

By come together, I assume you mean she should STFU and vote McCain. Don’t worry about all those issues that McCAin is really bad on; just stop talking and vote. Hey Terrye, this is a campaign. McCain is supposed to convince people to vote for him, and immigration is a valid issue, where he happens to be WAY off; many folks, such as myself, won’t trust him on it because of how he conducted himself during the immigration debate. MM may vote for him, but she’s going to keep pressure on him. Rather than bash her, you might learn to think for yourself and not just be a campaign shill. Coming together doesn’t mean doing whatever John McCain wants. He wants support, then he needs to earn it. If their support is conditional on him getting his head screwed on right about immigration, then he better do so. My problem is I wouldn’t believe him, even if he did promise enforcement first. I think he’s a hack and La Raza owns his a**. People like MM do a lot more for the political process by shinining a light on these self serving dirtbags than people like you who drink the kool aid and spout the talking points.

austinnelly on June 20, 2008 at 4:13 PM