I caught a few minutes of a McCain town hall meeting on C-SPAN last night ("Road to the White House").

Obama proved himself exceedingly wise in his deft evasion of McCain's post-primary invitation to debate in ten town hall forums all across the county during the period prior to the conventions.

An Aside: what accounts for Obama's deftness? He unceremoniously and unabashedly "ducked" the straight-forward offer (technically, I think he and his staff are still considering the proposal)--and that was the last most of us heard on the subject. The mainstream media dropped the story, and John McCain could not find a way to make any hay out of Obama's refusal to meet on the field of honor.

Second Aside: although it has been widely reported that Barack Obama spurned public financing of his campaign (essentially, because he got a better offer), that dramatic disavowal of a time-honored Democratic Party (and Beltway press corps) shibboleth never rose to the level of a huge media story either. Love means never having to say you're sorry.

Third Aside: the best ironic human interest angle never reported (and almost certainly destined to be ignored through November) is that McCain really is everything that Obama purported to be during his "a change you can believe in" period. On the other hand, if a candidate loses his innocence, and the media refuse to report it, did it actually happen?

On last irony: ask the media why they lost that loving feeling for their erstwhile sweetheart, Maverick John McCain? Number One Answer: he changed.

Reset. Back to point. Why was Obama wise to avoid McCain and his offer to traverse the nation together on the same plane as his opponent meeting and greeting the people of our fair land like the statesmen of old?


Because McCain owns the format.

Watching McCain last night was truly awe-inspiring. There he was in a GM plant with a real audience. Some people liked him. Some people were obviously hostile questioners. But Johnny Mac backs down from no one. Some one wanted to hold his feet to the fire on his "flip flop" concerning off-shore drilling, he had an answer. He also said to her: "keep the microphone." He intended to answer her question and then give her a chance to follow up.

True Grit.

After she was satisfied (or at least subdued), her friend wanted to take him to task on Iraq. McCain told her he did not have time to answer that question fully, but then he proceeded to speak for the next ten minutes in rapid-fire explanation of American vital interests in Iraq yesterday, today, and tomorrow. It was a tour de force.

McCain crushes any other candidate in this venue.

Why? He has deep and thick positions on vital questions, which he can address from any number of angles.

The Bad News: McCain cannot deliver a speech to save his soul. Running for president cannot be an endless parade of town halls. Even worse, his opponent is a master stem winder. McCain looks even worse than he is (and he is dreadful) in comparison to Obama. If McCain is to win this election (which, let me remind you once again, is an outrageously unlikely proposition), he must avoid a big live televised speech to the American public (change the format of the nominating convention, if need be).

What works for McCain in terms of national media? Frankly, not much. Perhaps some quick-hitting commercials with video of his return as a POW, coming down the gangplank of his airplane smiling and hobbling, while the voice over (Tom Selleck maybe) talks about who McCain is and what he's going to do (cue some sentimental and patriotic music). Does that sound too manipulative? Maybe--but that is the only way to counter the oratorical majesty of his opponent--which, in truth, is merely a pleasant but basically irrelevant distraction from the real issues of this campaign.

McCain needs those town halls. What really works for McCain is hand-to-hand combat. If he could court the 125 million potential voters in America the way he wooed the 250,000 Republican and independent voters in New Hampshire, McCain would be the odds-on favorite for 2008. However, reality check, this is not the game.

Nevertheless, McCain needs those town halls. Why is Obama unlikely to spend any time with his opponent in this venue? The town hall not only plays to McCain's great strength, it also highlights Obama's chief stylistic weakness. While he is a brilliant writer and extraordinarily skilled at delivering his well-crafted speeches, Obama is not particularly articulate off the cuff. He can be rattled. Once off script and roughed up a bit, he may threaten to bomb Pakistan or begin scheduling face-to-face meetings with America's most wanted.

Obama reminds me of my students who sometimes claim "test anxiety." That is, "I knew all the material," they tell me, "but my mind went blank during the exam." What that means, generally, is that at some point at three in the morning they sort of remember being able to recite (for the most part) all the terms and definitions they had scribbled on a study sheet. But now that it is actually test time, and the pressure is on, they are scrambling and grasping for the answers.

Yes, believe it or not, in the American colleges of the present, there is an official diagnosis for this malady: Test Anxiety. Back when I was in school we just called it insufficient preparation. Now you can get a note from our disabilities specialist.

John McCain doesn't suffer from test anxiety. Generally, he does not need to call up something from a recent late-night cram session. McCain is thoroughly McCain. He is always on message--because he is the message.

Barack and Johnny will debate eventually in a tightly controlled network-anchor-dominated format in which both sides will fire broadsides at one another with probably little effect. In truth, neither one is a very good debater (Obama for the reasons listed above; McCain lacks humor and charisma). Having said that, Obama will win the visuals and the spin and most likely take the match on points.