Barack Obama’s campaign made its distaste for free-style debates more or less official yesterday in their letter to the Commission on Presidential Debates. Team Obama only will agree to three debates, which has been the tradition through the last several presidential cycles, and all of them in the standard moderated format. He will not accept McCain’s challenge to meet him in a format where voters can ask the questions:

Obama’s campaign released a letter this afternoon from campaign manager David Plouffe to the Commission on Presidential Debates only agreeing to the traditional three sanctioned fall debates and single vice presidential forum.

“Due to the late date of the two parties’ nominating conventions, and the relatively short period between the end of the conventions and the first proposed debate, it is likely that the four commission debates will be the sole series of debates in the fall campaign,” Plouffe writes.

Not said is whether Obama is any longer considering meeting McCain for any town hall meetings outside the Commission’s debates. After initial indications in June that some would take place, it appears increasingly unlikely that the two candidates will meet on stage before the first debate at Ole Miss in September. McCain wanted to do one per week; Obama’s campaign responded by proposing one town hall on July Fourth and a Lincoln-Douglas-style appearance in August. McCain’s campaign rejected this counter-offer and discussions have since ceased as the campaign has increasingly turned negative.

The McCain campaign responded with a dose of sarcasm:

“We understand it might be beneath a worldwide celebrity of Barack Obama’s magnitude to appear at town hall meetings alongside John McCain and directly answer questions from the American people, but we hope he’ll reconsider.”

This news will surprise no one that has followed the number of gaffes Obama makes when speaking off the cuff.  When the press finally got embarrassed by their fawning attitude and asked him tough questions in the Pennsylvania debate, Obama folded like a cheap suit against Hillary — and immediately stopped appearing in debates.  He has provided an almost endless series of gaffes when speaking extemporaneously, and obviously wants no part of McCain in this format.

Either way, McCain can use this response to his advantage.  He can continue appearing in town-hall forums and openly question why Obama lacks the courage to join him.  In the traditional presidential debates, McCain can remind the national audience that Obama needed to hide behind the skirts of the media moderators rather than face voter questions directly.  It’s a bonus for McCain in that sense, although he would have preferred getting Obama into his preferred format and watching him get exposed for the inexperienced naïf that Obama clearly is.