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.